2.10 Helping Others To Play Better - Conversational Coaching

This skill deals with the ways you can help your less-gifted conversational partners to participate more productively in their conversations with you. The idea is rather like just-in-time coaching. Suppose you are having a conversation with someone who doesn’t have the skills (or the wisdom) outlined in The TalkWorks Guide. Don't despair. What you can do for yourself in conversational repair you can also do for others. If you have a full set of skills in all three roles, you can help other ‘play’ better — that is, engage in some kind of dialogue. You can do so without getting on your high horse, without violating the values and attitudes that make for good conversations.

a. You can always help the other person do better

What if your conversational partner doesn’t have the skills required for effective dialogue? What if he or she has good Explainer/Teller skills but poor Understander skills, or vice versa? What if he or she does not know how to take turns or collaborate?

When your conversational partner does not have the skills required for the give-and-take of good communication, all is not lost. If you have the skills, you can help the other person to play properly, that is, to engage in productive dialogue. And you can do so without being patronizing or condescending. ‘I'm smart and you're not’ attitudes destroy the very foundation of dialogue.

Since ‘things go better with dialogue’, helping the other person engage in dialogue helps both parties. If conversational repair is what you do to remedy your own mistakes, then helping the other play is an unobtrusive form of conversational ‘coaching’.

b. Take the case of a boring conversation

Let's take ‘boring conversations’ as an example. All of us run into people who we perceive as boring in their conversations with us. Indeed, some of our conversational partners probably see us as boring at times. There are many ways people can be boring in any given conversation. People can be boring because they:

(a) Violate the principles of effective dialogue by, say, avoiding turn-taking. They engage in monologues.

(b) Don't know how to connect with their conversational partners. There is no sense of ‘we’ in the conversation.

(c) Are dogmatic. They are not open to being influenced.

(d) Seem preoccupied with themselves and their agendas, and their agendas are often not very captivating.

(e) Go on and on with their stories or points of view, that is, their conversation is bloated.

(f) Do not tune in and listen well.

(g) Do not respond to conversational partners with understanding and never feedback highlights.

(h) Lack social wisdom and are tactless in their interactions.

The point is, that they violate one or more of the principles of effective dialogue consistently.

Effective communicators, however, take to heart this piece of wisdom: "Boredom is a self-indictment." It’s all too easy to blame others for our boredom. Teachers are boring. Preachers are boring. Bosses are boring. Spouses are boring. Children are boring. Parents are boring. Friends are boring. No one escapes. How can we avoid boredom in our conversations with others?

Good communicators, instead of saying, "I'm bored," say, "I'm letting myself be bored." They then challenge themselves to take a situation that is boring and turn it into something engaging. They get into Conversation Manager mode and take responsibility for improving the state of the conversation, even if their conversational partners don't.

For instance, you meet Catherine at a church function. Quicker than you can blink an eye, she begins talking about her children. You know her tendency is to go on and on about them. This is not dialogue. This is not a good, enjoyable conversation. Whereas others might think it heroic to subject themselves to such treatment and tactfully slip away when they can, you take a different tack. You decide to break the cycle of boredom. You help Catherine engage is a conversation that has some reasonable resemblance to a dialogue, in which both of you meet your needs.

Early on in the conversation you say, "As I listen to you talk about your kids, I've been thinking about mine. What a different world our kids live in. Different from the one you and I were raised in. For instance … "

Then you go on, briefly, to bring up a couple of examples of these differences. Then you say, "Well, at least that's the way I see it. How about you, Catherine?"

You sow the seeds of dialogue by keeping to the same subject, that is, kids, but by broadening it to include your own kids and by giving it a slant that is of some interest to you.

When it comes to boring conversations, you have some choices. You can leave the playing field - "Hey, Catherine, I've got to get home." You can put up with it - "Sure … Yes … Un-huh … I see what you mean." You can change the topic - "By the way, Catherine, did you and Bill get to go to that new restaurant yet?" Or you can stick with the general topic but work at making the conversation tolerably interesting.

On a business trip to London, a passenger asked a flight attendant if she got bored on trans-Atlantic journeys. She said no. "You just can't let yourself get bored. It's unfair to the passengers. It's unfair to yourself. Here's my secret. I pick out a couple of challenges for each flight. Last week, for instance, I was at the entrance to the plane, welcoming the passengers, and saw Mr. Grumpy coming along. So I said to myself, `He'll be putty in my hands before we're over Glasgow.' And he was. I'm pretty good at what I do." She was very good at communication.

Not everyone is boring, but there are a lot of people who do not know how to engage creatively in dialogue. The boredom example is used to dramatise the need to do whatever you can to turn mediocre conversations into conversations that are reasonably satisfying.

c. How ‘conversational coaching’ differs from ordinary conversations

Before outlining a method for helping others engage in dialogue, it’s important to distinguish ‘helping the other play’ from what you ordinarily do if you are a reasonably skilled communicator. Good communicators help one another instinctively — without thinking of it as ‘help’. For instance, if at any given moment the Explainer/Teller is not being clear, a good Understander asks direct or indirect questions in order to probe for clarity. This is part of ordinary conversational competence.

Helping others play is a different situation. In this case, your conversational partner does not have a particular skill, or set of skills, or uses whatever skills he, or she, has erratically. Helping others play deals with chronic, rather than incidental, communication deficits or mistakes. Many people lack communication competence in one or more areas of dialogue through no particular fault of their own. The ‘others’ referred to in ‘helping others play’ are not evil, uncaring, culpably incompetent, indifferent, cynical, and the like. When you help others play, it’s at the service of better conversations - better for them and better for you.

Your help might be useful in any area of conversational competence, such as:

Conversational management, including turn-taking in the spirit of sharing the air-time, setting and contributing to the purpose of the conversation, contributing to a supportive conversational climate, including demonstrating respect and engaging in emotional control.

Doing a better job in the Explainer/Teller role, including telling stories, delivering messages, sharing points of view, or making cases.

Doing a better job in the Understander role, including listening actively and feeding back highlights, and avoiding the kind of misunderstanding that comes from assumption-making and mind-reading.

d. The basic helping formula and process

The basic formula for helping the other play has two parts. It’s as if the partner providing the help says to himself or herself:

(a) "Here is the difficulty I'm experiencing with this conversation."

(b) "Here's how you can help me."

There are two main ways you can help your partners. First, intensify your efforts to express yourself clearly in the Explainer/Teller role, and double check the quality of your understanding in the Understander role. Second, find ways to invite your less skilled, or distracted, partner to help you understand what they are saying, and to work at understanding what you are saying.

Use statements, requests, and both direct and indirect questions to help others play.

If your partner is telling an unclear story, delivering a muddled message, sharing a confusing point of view, or doing a poor job at making a case, use:

Statements such as: "I'm not sure where all her anger was coming from," or, "It's not clear to me what makes you prefer the second option."

Requests such as: "Back up and tell me how you came to meet her in the first place," or, "Tell me more about your second point. That sounds intriguing," or, "Run that by me once more. I know you were scared, but …"

Questions such as: "What did you do then?" or, "How will this programme benefit the school?"

Such statements, requests, and questions, delivered in the spirit of dialogue, are not accusatory. Rather they are ways of showing interest.

Use your own ‘failure to understand’ as a leverage point: "I might be missing something, but …" or, "I think I might have misinterpreted your last point, so it would help if you could you go over it once more," or, "I didn't quite pick up the reason for the change." All of these interventions have a ‘help me understand’ quality about them. You provide help by asking for help.

You can also provide help when your conversational partner lacks Understander skills. Some of your interventions will take the form of your failure to communicate well. "I guess my first point wasn't that clear. Let me put it a different way."

Statements, requests, and questions can also be used. "I'm not sure how much of this is making sense to you. What's your reaction up to this point?" or, "I wonder what you think is the most important point in my argument? Give me your view."

When you are trying to help those who are less skilled than you, you will ‘interrupt’ a lot. You have to in order to give shape to the conversation. It's a trade-off. If you don't interrupt, the conversation will remain formless. Interrupting, done poorly, can seem rude or even arrogant. However, if you do it well and have the right intention, your partners won’t even notice it.

e. Meet the Smith and Jones families for examples of helping others play

The following examples are taken from interactions within and between the Jones and the Smith families. Here is the cast of characters. You can refer back to it as need arises:

The Jones family has four members:

Patrick Jones, 58, is a solicitor. His communication skills are good. Margaret Jones, 53, is a homemaker who has a part-time job in an accounting firm. She has mediocre communication skills. One deficit is that she tends to ‘save up’ her negative emotions and then dump them all at once on her unsuspecting partners. Their son Tom Jones, 24, is a guitarist in a band. He’s unmarried and lives on his own. His communication skills are poor. Clem Bailey, 65, Margaret's elder sister, is a widow and retired estate agent. She lives with the Jones family and helps around the house. She's a rather abrasive communicator.

The Smith family has three members: Stephanie Smith, 45, works as an assistant administrator in a health-care practice. Her communication skills are excellent. Charley Smith, 41, is a shift supervisor in a car assembly plant. His communication skills are poor. Debbie Smith, 16, is a high-school student. Though she’s an intelligent girl, she has a slight learning disability and interacts with others relatively little.

Conversational partners contribute to the effective working of a conversation in a variety of ways: taking responsibility for the conversation, showing respect, avoiding win-lose approaches, respecting the conversational rights of others, making emotions serve conversations, and demonstrating their social know-how.

You are not responsible, however, for the values or attitudes of your conversational partners, nor can you wave a wand and make them wise in ways they are not. But there are unobtrusive ways of inviting them to become partners in establishing a supportive conversational partnership.

Patrick and Margaret Jones get along well. But they are on the opposite sides of the fence with respect to their son, Tom. Patrick sees him as a young man with a lot of undeveloped talent who is wasting his life. While Margaret is concerned that he is not yet married; she sees him as a creative person, ‘looking for his slot in life’. Patrick and his sister-in-law, Clem, don't see eye to eye all the time. Clem is wary of Patrick and is careful not to be abrasive with him. The Jones family is relatively conservative.

The members of the Smith family get along well with one another. From time to time, they are concerned with their daughter's shyness. Charley and Stephanie Smith don't always agree on what to do about it. The Smith family is relatively liberal.

These two families live next to each other and interact frequently. In general, the two families have a good relationship. They are ‘tuned in’ to each other. But, like many neighbours, they have their ups and downs.

f. Helping your partners manage their conversations better.

Conversations can fail to reach their full potential skill for countless reasons, many of which can be thought of as the result of deficiencies in the Conversation Manager role. What follows are a few suggestions for ways you can help your partners behave in in a manner that will help the conversation be more productive and rewarding for both of you.

Helping partners engage in dialogue

Unskilled communicators often are poor at the fundamentals of dialogue. They don't get into a turn-taking rhythm; they deliver monologues instead of trying to connect; they are not open to influence; they don't work with their conversational partners.

Let’s pay a visit.

Stephanie Smith is talking with Clem Bailey about the new rubbish-collection scheme. The rubbish has to be sorted for recycling. All the colour-coded bags must be placed on the pavement, on certain days. Clem has her own ideas about most things and doesn't easily engage in dialogue. Since Stephanie is skilled, she unobtrusively ‘helps’ Clem engage in dialogue, at least in important matters. In this example, Clem has been holding the floor. Once she gets the floor, she tends to keep it.

Early in the conversation, Stephanie ‘interrupts’ and says, "Clem, what you just said about the colour-coded bags makes lots of sense. People are going to need time to get used to sorting. I'd like to add one more caution about the bags and get your reaction."

She goes on to offer her point of view briefly, then invites Clem in. Clem immediately goes off on her own tangent.

However, whenever Clem comes in but fails to connect with what Stephanie has just said, Stephanie says something like, "That's another point we have to consider, Clem. But before we do that, I'd like your angle on my suggestion about where the bags should be placed."

Stephanie continues to ‘nag’ Clem in a very civil way throughout the conversation, using either direct, or indirect, variations of the formula outlined above. Not only does Clem not mind Stephanie's interventions, but she does not even notice. In fact, it's no secret that she enjoys her conversations with Stephanie. Clem is the abrasive one, not Stephanie.

Helping partners manage their emotions better

Stephanie Smith and Margaret Jones are talking about ‘today's’ kids in general with a few references to their own. They get around to talking about Tom, Margaret's son. As they talk, Margaret gets more and more angry, not an uncommon event when Tom is the subject of the conversation. She thinks that her husband, and everyone else, puts Tom down unfairly. Now Margaret is very agitated.

Stephanie says, "Margaret, let's slow down and relax a bit. I'm not the enemy. I'm listening more to your anger than what you have to say about Tom … I'm vaguely hearing you say that Tom does have his problems, but he gets unfair treatment from Patrick and others."

Stephanie says this in a very concerned and caring way, helping Margaret pause and get control of her emotions.

Stephanie goes on: "I think Tom is Tom and has a right to live his own life. It would be awful if we had to guide our children all the way to the grave."

Margaret calms down a lot and after a pause, shares something about herself, saying, "I guess when people pick on Tom, I think they're picking on me. I know he has problems. But I am his mother."

The dialogue helps Margaret regain her composure and take a broader look at the issue being discussed.

Helping partners take a win-win approach to conversations

Clem Bailey loves games. She loves Monopoly and she loves cards. And she loves to win. Losing annoys her greatly. Sometimes these attitudes spill over into conversations. She and Stephanie Smith are talking about buying a new lawnmower together. Clem keeps pushing her own agenda. The Smith yard is larger, so they should pay more. The Smiths cut their lawn more frequently. They should pay more. Her whole attitude is the same attitude she brings to a game of Monopoly: "I'm going to get as much out of this as I can." She doesn't realise how she comes across to others.

Finally Stephanie says, "Heavens, I don't know, Clem. I'm beginning to think that I should look around the neighbourhood for someone a little more accommodating."

Clem's quick retort is, "Stephanie, this is a straight business deal."

Stephanie replies, "Well, that's my point. I thought it was a friendship deal, you know, neighbours helping neighbours. If it's a ‘straight business deal’, I'm afraid that we'd end up fighting over it later on. You know, repairs and things like that. I don't want a silly lawnmower to come between our families. We squabble enough as it is. And I don't think we should convene a council of our families to make a decision about a mower."

Stephanie gently resets the conversation in a win-win mode. It’s an invitation to Clem. Clem certainly does not want to make it a neighbour-against-neighbour affair. And she knows that her abrasiveness doesn't go down well with her brother-in-law, Patrick.

So Clem relents, saying with a smile, "You'd make a lousy businessman, Stephanie. Your customers would run all over you. So, let's go pick out a lawnmower."

Stephanie laughs, too, and says, "Clem, I'd make a lousy ‘man’ of any type. And you have to promise me one more thing. From now on, let’s make sure Patrick is in charge of lawnmower negotiations."

Stephanie and Clem both end on a light-hearted note that helps the conversational climate and the relationship.

Using your social competence to defuse sensitive situations

The next scene takes place in the Jones's house. The Smiths have been invited to dinner. Tom Jones is not there. Debbie Smith, Stephanie and Charley's teenage daughter, is fuming in silence. Earlier in the day she had a run-in with the abrasive Clem. Since Debbie's silence is not unusual, no one notices that she is upset.

During a lull in the conversation, she finally looks at Patrick Jones and blurts out, "Mr. Jones, why does Clem pick on me when you're not around, but never when you are around?"

Clem goes scarlet. Patrick's gut tightens. Debbie has been tactless. Patrick assumes that his sister-in-law, Clem, has probably been up to her usual tricks. He doesn't respond immediately, but lets a few possibilities run through his mind.

After a short delay, he says, "Debbie, I think that neighbours should face up to neighbour-type problems as openly as possible… . But dinner is probably not the best time. Dinner's for relaxation. Being together. We'll talk later. Right after dinner if you like."

Patrick controls his emotions. He's angry at Clem and annoyed with Debbie, but he's not about to add fuel to the fire. He neither dismisses the issue raised, nor does he let dinner turn into a free-for-all. Debbie's anger, however, is still getting the better part of her.

So she looks around the table and says, "But everyone keeps telling me I should express myself more!"

At this point Stephanie Smith intervenes, saying calmly, "That's true, Debbie. At least I'm on your case a lot about speaking up. Maybe too much. But I don't want to talk about things that are between you and me, at dinner. Let's do it when we go home."

Stephanie, too, takes responsibility for managing a tricky situation. Both Patrick and Stephanie help Debbie learn something about social competence. Debbie relents with a, "Well, all right." Table conversation gradually returns to its normal mode.

g. Helping partners play the Explainer/Teller role more effectively

There are many things you can do to help conversational partners who lack communication skills to become better Explainer/Tellers. Here are a few of them.

Helping the Explainer/Teller define and stick to a topic

Charley Smith and Patrick Jones are sitting together talking about some decisions the local council has taken on renovating their streets, decisions that neither of them likes. Charley has been going on and on about the ‘double-crossers’ on the council, and a half dozen other topics. Patrick knows that Charley has some good, practical ideas, but he crams them all together and jumps from one to the other. Charley seldom ‘frames’ any of his ideas with background and context.

So, at one point during the discussion, Patrick stands up to get Charley's attention and says, "Charley, we're both concerned about this street renovation business. Tell me more about your idea to delay the council's decision long enough for us to prepare an alternative plan. I'm a lawyer, but I still don't quite understand how the politics of all this work. Explain it to me …”

Patrick, through his request, gets Charley to focus on a topic that is of concern to both of them. His ‘confession of ignorance’ — "I still don't get it" — also helps provide focus for Charley.

Helping the Explainer/Teller avoid rambling

Patrick Jones and his son, Tom, are talking. Patrick asks Tom about his future and the future of the band. This launches Tom into a spate of rambling, something he does quite frequently. Rambling is a package of things. In Tom Jones's case, it means that he does not start with a headline, doesn't provide any background, fails to develop his theme with any logic, and does not to bring his partners into the conversation. Each of these is a possible point of entry for Patrick.

Patrick chooses to help Tom stop rambling by helping him name a key topic and develop it with some logic and clarity.

He begins by saying, "By the way, I don't want to get on your case this evening. I just want to find out more about you and the band."

That is, he makes a remark aimed at establishing a collaborative climate. He goes on to say, "You've been talking about a number of different things, your own passion for music, your new partner Eric's ability to market the band, what your road trips are like. And I guess I'm getting a little lost. I'd like to get a feeling for the bigger picture. I'm wondering what's most important for you and the band right now."

Tom responds, "Oh, that's easy. It's Eric. He's new. The best thing that could have happened to us. He's really good at getting us bookings. But the best part is, that he is showing us how to develop a unique style. Eric's a great musician. The style he's helping us with is one-of-a-kind, but you know, broad enough to hit a wide audience.”

With Patrick's help, Tom comes up with a headline that introduces a key topic that has not even been mentioned up to this point. But it sounds key to understanding the band.

After the headline about the band's style, Tom launches off in another direction. Patrick interrupts and says, "Tom, could we go back to style for a minute? That sounds intriguing. I'm not sure if it's something you've already got. Or something you're aiming for."

Patrick wants to help Tom develop the headline about the band's style.

Tom replies, "Well, you know, Dad, in your day they talked about the ‘big band’ sound and stuff like that. Well, this is different. It's more a sound that emerges from the particular set of people in the group. We've now got a couple of guys from Cuba. So our sound is a combination of Latin beat and, well, light jazz, but still with a rock flavour … It sounds confusing until you hear it. It's pretty distinctive and we're getting great reactions from audiences."

They go on, through dialogue, to develop the notion of a ‘unique style’ and its success. Patrick keeps using versions of the helping formula to keep Tom on track. He ends up learning a great deal about the world in which his son lives.

h. Helping partners do a better job in the Understander role

Some people have not developed the skill and habit of tuning in, listening with an open mind, identifying the highlights in the stories, messages, points of view, or cases of others, feeding back these highlights, and probing for greater clarity. You can help such a person engage in the activities associated with the Understander role - at least enough to have a decent dialogue.

Inviting partners to tune in more effectively

Stephanie Smith, who has excellent communication skills, is talking with Margaret Jones, whose skills leave something to be desired, about plans for the upcoming community dinner. They are in charge of the menu. When Stephanie talks about what ‘theme’ should run through the menu, Margaret does little but nod her head now and again. When Stephanie stops, Margaret speaks, but what she says has little relationship to what Stephanie has been saying. Rather than discussing possible themes for the dinner itself, Margaret begins talking about individual dishes.

In her conversation with herself Stephanie says that Margaret's lack of responsiveness is not good for Margaret, for Stephanie, or for the dinner. So she begins to help Margaret play a partner role in a dialogue. Here are some of the kinds of things she does.

The two of them are sitting at the Jones's kitchen table.

When Margaret seems to get lost in her own thoughts, Stephanie says, "Margaret, let's see if we can organise ourselves a little better here. Let's write down some possible themes for the dinner. Here, take some of my paper [she tears of a few sheets of paper from her pad]. Why don't you jot down some possibilities? I'll do the same. Then we can discuss them."

Stephanie expresses her concern indirectly by talking about getting ‘better organised’. Next she provides a ‘prosthetic device’ – the notepad paper – to help Margaret tune in to the task better.

Encouraging the Understander to feed back highlights

After agreeing on a theme, they tackle the menu itself. At one point, Stephanie shares her point of view on what salads might fit with the theme.

When Margaret fails to feed back any highlights, Stephanie says something like this: "Before we go on to plan the main course, I'd like to get your reaction to the salad part. How do you think each of the salads I've described fits with the overall theme? Or, you might have a better idea."

Stephanie invites Margaret to give her some feedback and she invites Margaret to offer other options. The feedback requires some understanding of what Stephanie has proposed.

Helping the Understander explore issues with you

If your conversational partners don't ask either direct, or indirect, questions, you can help them do so. For instance, there are times when Margaret just accepts what Stephanie has to say without any discussion. Stephanie's fear is that this might lead to trouble later on with Margaret saying things like, "Well, Stephanie, we really didn't discuss that and I certainly did not agree."

In discussing the dessert, Stephanie says, "Well, Margaret, we've come up with a number of possibilities for dessert. If I'm not mistaken, I think we're both tending to think that bread pudding with brandy sauce would do just fine. But I'm not so sure that we are being as thorough as we might be. Play the devil's advocate for me, will you? Ask me some tough questions about the choice we seem to be making. After all, we want the meal to end on a high note."

Stephanie's concern is couched in terms of ‘not being sure about the choice’ being made. She invites Margaret to play the devil's advocate in order to get some probing questions about the choice they are making.

Margaret obliges by asking, "What makes you so sure that this particular dessert fits in with the theme of the dinner?"

Stephanie responds by exploring the connection between the dessert and the ‘colonial’ theme they had settled on.

And so Stephanie, without becoming patronizing or condescending, helps Margaret tune in more effectively, feedback some highlights, and even probe for greater clarity.

Here are a couple of more suggestions on how to interact with someone who is not doing well in the Understander role. The first is to be open about it, but without attacking the other person. You can say things like: "I can see you're puzzled by what I'm saying," or, "I seem to have lost you." The second is to go back and start again with a clear headline. For example, you might say: "The main point I'm trying to get across is … " And then, if necessary, rebuild the essence of your story, message, point of view, or case, using further requests and questions to draw in your partner.

i. What if the other knows how to play, but isn’t?

Just because we have the skills outlined here does not mean that we automatically use them in all cases. Some of us are communication lazy. We could do better if we wanted. At times we seem to say to ourselves, "it's not worth it right now," or, "right now, I just don't care."

Not playing and being reluctant to play

if the other knows how to play, but is not playing, because he or she has had an attack of laziness, or is in an it's-not-worth-it-right-now mood, determine how urgent it is to have this particular conversation. it might be better to put it off, talk about other issues, or just shoot the breeze.

However, if there is some urgency, you can still invite the other person to play. Carlos has invited Dwayne, a good friend, over for a ‘chat’. On the phone he said, "There's something I'd like to talk through." Dwayne’s behaviour during the first few minutes of the conversation indicates that he is not in the mood to talk.

Eventually Carlos says: "Dwayne, I don't think you're in the mood for serious chat, but there's something bothering me. I've been thinking of moving. Moving to another city. I'm not getting anywhere here. I don't like my job. My social life is crap. I think I need a completely new start. I've saved a bit. I just might invest it in a new life."

Carlos feels that his need outweighs Dwayne’s mood. Dwayne responds by saying, "Woah! Is this the Carlos I know speaking? Let's back up a bit. I feel I've come in at the end of the movie. What's going on?"

They go on to have a problem-solving dialogue in which Carlos is open and Dwayne is both supportive and challenging. This is, perhaps, an easy case because the sheer urgency of it changes the conversational climate. If the issue is important but not urgent, then you have to decide whether it's worth the effort to plough ahead. If you decide to move forward, remember what the Guide says about conversational rights.

Refusing to play

If a conversationally competent partner refuses to engage in a dialogue even when invited, even when the issue is important or urgent, then we have a different situation. Laziness or reluctance is one thing. Refusal, evasiveness, or outright belligerence is another. Then we are in difficult conversation territory.

j. The economics of conversational coaching

Someone might complain, "Helping every poor communicator get his or her act together does not make any sense. That's all I'd be doing!" And the complainer would not be far from the truth. Helping others engage in productive dialogue is not easy work. Especially when hidden agendas and other shadow-side dynamics are intermingled with poor communication skills. Some people communicate poorly on purpose. They don't want to be understood. For whatever reason, they want their communication to be ambiguous. They don't want to be tied down.

Since helping others engage in some kind of dialogue is not easy work, you're going to have to decide how much energy you're going to invest in helping friends, relatives, community members and colleagues at work. Even though you'd like to be helpful in general, every situation is a new decision. What return will you get on your investment?

Helping every poor communicator clean up his or her act would be overkill. Your general goal may be quite modest – to engage in conversations that approximate decent dialogue. What value is there in investing a lot of energy in getting another person to have a decent conversation about the choice of a movie or restaurant? You decide. What value is there is spending a lot of energy helping your son engage in a dialogue about his decision to quit school? You decide.

Another critic might take a different slant, "All this ‘helping the other play’ stuff is built on the assumption that other people are stupid. Anyway, who says that everyone wants to play? Remember the real world? Where does anyone get taught how to help other people talk? We don't do this at home, in the community, or at work. And, if we don't do it, there is probably some good reason for not doing it. And if you go around ‘helping people’ they will catch you at your game."

People help people all the time. Helping people have better conversations is fundamentally no different from helping them in other ways. A lot has to do with the spirit in which the help is given. If your help is an exercise of power, or an expression of arrogance, or a way of putting the other person down, then you are violating the values that support good dialogue.

As to getting ‘caught’ in the act of helping, it may be that you are clumsy in the way you help. Effective communicators provide help unobtrusively. They don't see themselves as ‘helpers’. But if you are sincere, what's the big deal? People often end conversations by saying, "Thanks for that. This little talk has helped me a lot." Sentiments like this are expressed because the sense of caring the ‘helper’ has shown. But some of it relates to the helper's ability to do whatever is necessary to have a ‘good chat’ in the first place. No need to apologise for that.

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