3.4 Filling The Picture With Useful Detail

Explainer/Teller tasks such as explaining, describing, proposing, justifying, and so on, work best if they include the right ingredients. This section explains the ideal recipes for telling stories, delivering messages, sharing points of view, and making the case.

a. Helping the other person to build an accurate and complete picture

Headlining and underlining are necessary for clarity, but not sufficient. Once you've highlighted your topic or issue, it's crucial to fill it out with the right detail. If you fail to provide your conversational partners with enough (relevant) information, they might well fill in the missing pieces for themselves. And, often enough, they'll reach the wrong conclusion. Or, if after a good headline or underline, you wander all over the place, the impact is lost.

Good communicators, in the Explainer/Teller role, provide their conversational partners with enough information to prevent faulty assumptions being made. Put more positively, they make sure their stories, messages, points of view, and cases, have all the necessary ingredients.

Let's see how this looks in practice. A framework outlining the essential ingredients in each of these kinds of communication will help you make to sure add the right kind of detail.

Using the right kind of detail to tell your story

A story has four essential ingredients, represented by the acronym, SAME:

The Situation, the background or context for the story: "This happened during my first year in college. It was the first time in my life that I was away from home without my family."

The Explainer/Teller's Actions, what he or she did or did not do: "At the end of the first term, I feigned illness to avoid taking an exam."

The Explainer/Teller's Mental states, how he felt about what happened in the story: "I was scared to death that I'd fail and get kicked out of college."

The Explainer/Teller's Experiences, what happened to him, what other people did, or did not do: "The head of department told me in a rather harsh voice that he knew what my game was, but then he softened and said he also understood why I was doing it."

Consider this example: Rhona comes into Howard's office. Since Howard is looking very glum, she asks, "What's wrong? You look pretty low." He replies, "Oh, I had a problem with my boss yesterday. And it's still bothering me today." Because this does not sound earth-shattering, Rhona moves on to some other issue. The problem is that Howard did not use the SAME ingredients.

What if, instead, Howard had outlined his predicament by using a headline followed by a brief story with all four of the above ingredients in it? It might have sounded something like this:

"Glum? You’re right about that. I had a disastrous encounter with my boss yesterday. (Headline). I was having a meeting with the members of my team. We were discussing the new marketing plan, resetting targets, raising the bar, you know, when in walked by boss, Patricia: (Situation, context, background). When she heard that we were discussing next quarter's marketing plan, she told me that it had ‘better be good’ and began telling me all the things I had done wrong last quarter. Right in front of the team! (Experience, what she did to him). I blew my top. (Action, plus Mental state or emotion). And then I told her off. I dumped all resentment I've been saving up, on to her. (Actions) She threatened to demote me on the spot. (Experience, what she did to him). Now I'm more than glum. I'm really depressed, (Mental state) and I’m trying to figure how to get my reputation and position back.” (Action)

This, to say the least, is a much clearer and more compelling statement of the problem than the bare-bones version: "I had a problem with my boss yesterday."

Rhona, listening to the SAME version, replies, "Good grief! What started out to be an ordinary day turned into a disaster within a few minutes. And now you're trying to mop it all up… . How do you think you might straighten it all out?"

Note that the reply is short, to the point, and captures the essence of what the Explainer/Teller has just said. They go on a have discussion about just what can be done to put his world back together.

As Explainer/Teller, your job is to try to make sure that the story, or message that’s in your head, ends up in the head of the Understander in as complete and undistorted a form as possible.

It's usually helpful if your story combines all four ingredients. Here's a story with two of the parts missing.

Matthew is complaining about the behaviour of his room-mate, Roger, “Roger came back yesterday and lost his temper. He ranted and screamed at me and said the flat looked like a bomb had hit it. And then he told me he wasn't going to pay his share of the rent. He had no right to be so rotten and I'm feeling really ticked off by his behaviour."

The story contains what happened to Matthew, (Experiences) and his feelings about them, (Mental state). Now, here's the story again with the missing ingredients - the Situation plus a fuller version of Matthew's Actions - included.

"Roger, my room-mate, and I are in quite a mess. Roger had agreed I could hold a party while he was away, so long as I cleaned up before he got back. Unfortunately, I didn't plan very well. I forgot that I had to visit my parents over the weekend, so I didn't get around to putting it back in order. And I didn't think of trying to get hold of him to apologise. Roger came back yesterday and lost his temper. He ranted and screamed at me, and said the flat looked like a bomb had hit it. And then he told me he wasn't going to pay his share of the rent. He was really crazy about the whole thing and I'm angry with him."

The story has quite a different meaning when all the key ingredients are included. In the first version, the Explainer/Teller comes across as a victim of Roger's over reaction. In the second version, one wonders about Matthew's behaviour and Roger's reaction doesn't seem quite so unreasonable.

How many times do we tell only half of the story, deliver only part of a message, convey only a vague outline of our point of view, leave important items out when we are making a case and still expect to be understood? If we fail to talk about our part in the story, what we did or did not do, we come across as victims at the mercy of other people's behaviour and of the situations in which we find ourselves.

Spelling out your messages

A possible acronym for delivering messages is MRI (despite its medical affiliation):

Deliver the Message itself as clearly as possible and with the right kind of detail.

Give the Reasons for the message.

Spell out the Implications of the message for all key parties involved.

Nick, a lawyer, is talking with his wife Nora, a nurse, about a decision that he is on the verge of making. He first frames his remarks with some background. “You know I've been pretty unhappy about the work I do. When I was younger, there was nothing I wanted more than to be a lawyer. Now I hate it. I drag myself to the office everyday. I can't hide it any more." (R)

He goes on to deliver his Message: “I've more or less decided to go into politics. I've been talking with my political friends for about a year now. They're willing to support me as a candidate. In politics I can still use my legal skills, but in a way that's more challenging for me. I love reading about the political scene. Now I'd like to be part of it."

Nora says, "You won’t be surprised to know that this doesn't come as a complete shock to me.”

Nick goes on, "I know. If I win, there will be a lot of running back and forward between London and here. But I don't mind that. I'd think twice about it if we had to move. But we don't. You can keep your job. We keep our friends. There'll be less money, but we're not doing badly. We're not exactly over-the-top consumers. So there it is in a nutshell. What do you think?" (I)

Nick packages the essentials of MRI in a nutshell. He and Nora go on to discuss the Message, Reasons, and Implications in greater depth.

Sometimes messages can be quite ‘heavy’. Heavier messages require more thoughtfulness and skill. Recall Lillian, the woman who tells her husband, Larry, that she is not going through another round of chemotherapy. In the light of MRI, she might have delivered her message something like this.

Lillian first provides some background. "When I would read about people having to make agonising decisions about whether to have chemotherapy or not, my heart went out to them. I was so glad that it wasn't me. Now it's my turn. And I've been thinking a lot about you and about the kids."

She and Larry have a brief dialogue around these sentiments.

Then she says, "Larry, I've given this a lot of thought. And prayer. I have decided not to have the next round of chemotherapy treatments. But before you say anything, let me tell you why. In our hearts we both know that there is no cure. If there were any real hope of that, I'd probably try. But I don't want to go through agonising weeks just to gain a few more weeks - or even a couple of months. I want time to ponder my mortality in a more positive way. This means we have to talk about the end. We have to talk, because I don't want to die thinking that I'm deserting you. Thank God the kids are grown. I want them with me in this. Not protesting about what I'm doing. You have to help me in this."

All the ingredients are there, at least in capsule form. She and Larry go on to have a dialogue about the decision, together with the reasons for it and its implications.

The more concrete and specific (as opposed to abstract and vague) you are about all the ingredients of your story, message, point of view, or case, the more effective you will be as a communicator. But don't overdo it. Keep in mind both the purpose of the conversation and the two-way nature of dialogue. Don't use detail as a way of turning the conversation into a monologue.

Expanding and supporting your points of view

The very simple framework PRE can help you share your point of view:

P is the Point of view itself, and,

R is the Reason(s) you hold this point of view.

E refers to Evidence, or Examples, that give weight and clarity to your view.

Let's see how this works.

Liam has three teenage children. He realises that the world in which they live differs greatly from the world in which he grew up. There are a number of things about the current social culture that bother him. He is talking with Hilary, a neighbour who has distinctly liberal views.

He starts with a few words about context: "I know that we're going through a social and cultural revolution. And I appreciate some aspects of it. I was raised very strictly. As I look back, with church, school, and family I felt pretty hemmed in. As I see it now, I was too hemmed in, too constricted."

Hilary says, "So, even though the world is messier, some of the social changes you see are welcome."

Liam goes on to give his point of view about society as he sees it now, saying, "Yes, they are welcome. But there are some extremes. There are two attitudes some younger people seem to have that bother me a lot. They bother me more when they are put together. The first attitude states: ‘I can do anything I want’. No rules, no accountability. The second attitude says: ‘But if I get in trouble, you have to take care of me’. As far as I can see, if you bundle these two together, it spells social disaster. I don't want my kids to feel hemmed in the way I was, but I don't want them to victimise themselves with attitudes like these either."

Hilary responds, "You think we've gone too far. Attitudes like that would get your kids into trouble, get society into trouble."

Liam goes on, "Well, take some of these high school shootings. They all seem like extreme examples of ‘I can do anything I want’. And then a lot of people want to excuse their behaviour one way or another, blame it on society. They say that these kids felt isolated. And that kind of stuff. I felt isolated at times when I was a teenager. All teenagers feel like this at times. But I never shot anyone."

How would you grade Liam on communicating his point of view in terms of the PRE framework? Is there anything that you would change?

The very term ‘point of view’ often implies the notion of conflict. "I have my point of view. You have yours. We might well differ." It makes sense for the person in the Explainer/Teller role to deliver his, or her, point of view in such a way that the other person can hear it. It need not come across as a challenge or, even worse, a condemnation. If a point of view sounds like an accusation, the other person is likely to react rather than listen and respond.

Are there times when you probably should challenge someone's point of view? Certainly. We do that all the time. Challenge might be appropriate if you think that the other's point of view is too limited. Or if you think that the person might harm himself by maintaining such an outlook. Or if you think that the other's point of view could lead to actions that would harm others. But challenge need not carry the message, ‘You're wrong’. Challenge, carried out through dialogue, focuses on learning rather than on being right.

Developing your cases with the right ingredients

James Friedrich and David Douglass have reviewed principles that they believe should govern the use of persuasion in educational settings. Jay Conger has outlined principles to govern the use of persuasion in the workplace. These principles have been combined and reworked to produce the following set of value-focused guidelines for anyone making a case in whatever setting.

The acronym CRITIC stands for:

The Case itself and the clarity, with which it needs to be expressed.

The Reasons for the case.

The Interests of stakeholders, that is, the people being affected by the proposal other than the one making the case.

The Time people need to review, digest, and form opinions about the case.

The personal Interests of the case maker, that is, what he or she might get out of it.

The kind of Compromise that might be needed to meet the needs of concerned stakeholders.

All of these can be discussed and elaborated through dialogue.

There are degrees of seriousness in making cases. If you and your friends are going out to dinner, you can make a case for going to a restaurant that has just opened. Even then a mini-version of CRITIC might be useful. At the other end of the scale - let's say you’re making a case for you and your family to move to a developing country for a year in order, ‘to learn more about the world and put life in perspective’ - the full version might be called for.

Two things before we review the factors that comprise CRITIC. First, before you present your case, you should review your credibility with your audience, whether it's your spouse or the senior management committee at work. Credibility is something that you build over time. There may be fast food, but there is no such thing as fast credibility. If people don't trust you or if your track record is poor, you will have an uphill battle. For instance, Doris, a teenager making a case for being permitted to stay out later at night, lacks credibility because she has shown himself to be irresponsible in other areas.

Assess your credibility before you make a case. If you have been caught lying a couple of times, your credibility is at a low ebb. Whether fair or not, it’s often easier to lose credibility than to earn it. If you have ulterior motives or hidden agendas in making your case, watch how quickly you can lose your credibility.

Second, make sure that those to whom you’re presenting your case understand its context or background. This differs from the reasons you give for the case. The history, or context, or background you give, frames the case, allowing those who are listening to it to focus immediately on the important CRITIC issues. Once you have presented the background, then proceed to the case itself. Here are the principles.

b. Making sure that you case is clear

Your case is some kind of proposal that you would like others to act on. It should be clear in your own mind so that you can make it clear to others. Your case will make little impact if it’s not clear. Therefore, preparation time in making the core case clear is never time wasted. Some cases are quite simple; others are very complex.

Arthur has just completed his degree course at university. He is presenting a case to his parents.

By way of background he says, "I've had a great time, both academically and socially. I'm learning a great deal about myself. And I have some initial ideas as to what I'd like to get out of life."

Then he goes on to state his case: "I'd like to spend next year in a volunteer project in Kenya. There’s a high school there, which runs a programme for new graduates, like myself. It’s been running for some ten years now.

"Four graduates a year go and work at the school. They live with a family locally. They get involved in both the school and the community. They are mentored by members of the high-school staff. They work at tasks that best fit their talents, and that will add the greatest value to the school and to the community. But everything is well organised. All expenses are paid, including air travel. But the students are not paid; they receive only pocket money.

"I've read testimonials from students who’ve been through the programme and comments of the school staff. They are all very positive. Those who’ve gone through it say that it’s a hard year - but, you know, hard in a good sense - and they say it’s an extremely rewarding experience."

Since things go better with dialogue, the conversation with his parents is highly interactive throughout the CRITIC categories. They have a lot of questions and, since he is well prepared, he has a lot of answers.

Presenting reasons that make good sense

Not only do you have to be credible yourself, but your reasoning has to be sound. Arthur goes on to have a dialogue with his parents about his reasons for joining the African programme.

He says, "Through my economics course, I’ve come to realise that as a middle-class American, I'm up near the top of the world economic pyramid. What strikes me is how little I know about the rest of the world, despite newspapers and television.

"I want to know what ordinary people are like somewhere very different. And not people who are at the top of the economic pyramid. I almost feel like I'd never really know myself without knowing how other people live. This is my chance to do so."

Part of the dialogue, then, revolves around Arthur's motivation. As he presents his reasons, there is a great deal of give-and-take in his discussion with his parents.

Here are some things you can do to make sure that your reasoning is sound when you present the details of your case.

Provide solid evidence for your case.

Disclose the quality of the evidence you’re presenting.

Don't let your being liked by others take the place of evidence.

Leave the classical ‘hard sell’ to unreformed used-car salesmen.

Make a strong case when the evidence is strong; temper it when the evidence is weaker.

Let's return to Doris for a moment. In making a case for staying out later, she says, "Tom (her older brother) gets to stay out later," and, "Mum, we're heading into the 21st century!" These reasons will probably leave her mother unmoved. Furthermore, your reasons should be solid, but not overwhelming. People are uncomfortable when they have nowhere to move. In presenting your reasons, do not exaggerate. Temper your case when the reasons are not compelling.

Take into consideration the interests of those affected by the case. This means that you have to listen to, and understand, other stakeholders' needs and wants. If what you propose will affect others in both positive and negative ways, be open about both. This is one of the most critical parts of Arthur's case.

He says, "I know that you'll worry about me for all sorts of reasons. But I'm in excellent health and I know how to take care of myself. Before I go, I'd make a contract with you: If anything goes wrong in any kind of major way, I'll head home. And if you guys can do it, I'd like you to come visit. Parents are welcome for visits."

The three of them discuss this for a while.

Then Arthur says, "I know you'd like me to start my career as soon as possible, but I’d feel more like getting serious about work if I had some kind of break first. Doing this now won’t add any further financial burden on you. I guess ‘burden’ is not the right word. I don't think that you see it that way."

He gives room for his parents to address any of their interests, which he may have overlooked.

Back to Doris, the teenager looking for more freedom. She would do well to take her parents' interests into consideration. Her mother has a right to be reasonably concerned about her welfare.

Doris says something like this, "Mum, I know you worry about me. And, like you, I know the city is not always a safe place."

Sentiments like this, sincerely believed and sincerely expressed, would go a long way in helping her connect with her mother and open the door to further dialogue.

Giving people time to let your arguments sink in

Have you ever been rushed to make a decision by a fast-talking salesman? When a car salesman asks you, "What do I have to do to have you drive out in one of our cars this evening?" you know it's time to leave.

If Doris is making her case with her mother this afternoon because she wants to stay out late this evening, she might be disappointed with the hearing she gets.

On the other hand, Arthur says to his parents, "I don't have to make a final decision until about six weeks from now. I wanted to bring it up with you as soon as it became clear in my own mind so that we could all get used to the idea. So, we need to chew it over together."

Giving people time is often to the advantage of the person making the case. While others may find flaws with it over time, they also begin to learn to live with it.

Sharing your own legitimate interests

We make cases, at least ideally, because we think it’s the right thing to do, and because we will get something out of it. Be open about your own motivation. If your interests are legitimate and reasonable, there is nothing to hide. Disclosing your interests adds to your credibility.

Arthur says, "I think that my main interest is to see, no, to experience, the world in a radically different way. Also, part of growing up is getting away for a while. College takes care of part of this. But this is really getting away."

Note that since the case is something that will benefit Arthur, his reasons for it and his interests more or less coincide.

It’s often helpful to share your emotional commitment to the case you’re making. If you’re passionate about a cause, let others know. But don't think that strong emotions will take the place of solid reasons. Arthur speaks passionately about his desire to go, but he is also wise for his years and tempers his passion with realism.

Being open to reasonable compromise through negotiation

Invite counter arguments. Don't set up straw men and then knock them down. If you make your case through dialogue, you will come to understand both your own and the interests of others better. Dialogue can also help you fine-tune your case and get a better fix on the reasons that support it. In a word, dialogue will help you learn more about the case. One thing that you will learn is that you may have to compromise a bit. But if others help you hone your case, then the final package might well be better than the one with which you started.

Arthur is not open to a great deal of compromise, but there is some room to move.

He says, "The same organisation also has high schools in Peru and Alaska with similar programmes. My second choice would be Peru. I'd have to learn some Spanish, but that would be fun. Classes are taught in both Spanish and English. A sort of distant third is the programme in Alaska. They say that it’s as challenging as the other two - but, well, you know, Alaska is in the United States."

They have a lively discussion around these possibilities. The parents bring up some other possibilities.

Of course, you don't have to go through the entire CRITIC checklist every time you’re making a case. Rather, the values that the list represents should permeate the dialogue as you make your case.

c. Being careful of persuasion in conversations

Making a case does not mean pushing your agenda down people's throats, getting what you want despite all opposition, or getting people to do things even when they think that it’s not in their own, or others', best interests. Clearly this would violate the win-win ideal and other values outlined earlier.

Then what about persuasion? Attempts to persuade or influence others are so woven into the texture of life that we often don't even notice them. If someone is trying to persuade you to do something, he, or she, need not be pursuing a win-lose game. In fact, the persuader might well be trying to influence you precisely because he, or she, thinks this will be good for you. Of course, many persuaders usually know that if they can convince you it will be good for them. "Vote for me." "Buy my wares." "Join our club." The point is this. If, in a conversation, you find yourself in persuasion mode, pause a moment and ask yourself what you're doing and why.

Some forms of persuasion are quite sinister. Words like seduce, entice, exploit, and threaten come to mind. The message is something like this: "Do this. It will be good for me even though it may harm you. I don't care."

When you make a case, the compelling nature of the case itself is central. The case itself should capture the minds and hearts of your listeners, not your ability to manipulate their minds and hearts. For instance, Ellen, a student at secondary school, makes a case with her parents for getting a new computer. Elements of the case include the new lower cost of speedy computers, how the computer will help her in her class work, and how she will work to pay for half of it. This is far from cajoling her parents, sweet-talking her father, playing one parent against the other, and using other manipulative tactics to get what she wants.

d. Making key connections clear

An important way of communicating clearly with your conversational partners is to make important connections clear to them. This relates to stories, messages, points of view, and cases. Your partners need to understand you. They need to know what you really mean. Often a great deal of your meaning is found in links or connections. Let's consider a few examples.

Emphasising key links in telling stories

When using the SAME framework, it's important to be clear not only about the situation, your actions, what others do, and your emotional reactions, but also the important links among them. "I was depressed because she said she'd come but failed to show up." "What happened yesterday doesn't make any sense unless you know something about our relationship."

Luella is talking with her doctor about some symptoms she has been having, including headaches and lower-back pain. During the course of her examination she says,

"To tell the truth, I notice these aches and pains most often when I go out socially. You know, when I least need them."

This proves to be an important link. The doctor, after a thorough examination, finds no physical basis for her symptoms. It seems that Luella has been going to more social events because her husband wants to. Since she's more of an introvert, these social forays take a toll on her psychologically. Once she knows what the problem is, she can begin to look for solutions.

Highlighting important connections when delivering messages

There are links among messages themselves, the reasons for them, and the implications that follow from them. Sometimes it helps to emphasise key linkages.

Clark says, "I'm calling it quits with Sandy. Let me tell you why. Both of us have fallen into some bad habits in our relationship. Lying and stuff like that. We do it automatically. My brother had an on-and-off relationship with his first girlfriend. During those years they both picked up some very bad relationship habits. They finally called it off, but these habits have been messing up other relationships he's been in ever since. I don't want that to happen to me. Or to Sandy."

Clark uses an example to illustrate the reasoning behind his decision.

In another case, Suzanne, talking with her 21-year-old son, says, "It's important for you to know why I'm not going to lend you the money to pay for the car. It's not because I don't have it. I do. So I'm not going to fudge about that. It's really about responsibility. Because your father wasn't with us, I just gave you things as you grew up. My fear is that I've conspired with you to develop some bad habits. You're out of college now and the world is not going to give you anything. I think this change is going to be painful for both of us."

Her son gets both the message and the key connection his mother has highlighted. Her tone makes it clear that she means what she says. What he doesn't know is whether there is any room to manoeuvre. So, as they continue to talk, he understandably tries to find out.

Underscoring key links that give your point of view clarity and punch

In the PRE framework, the reasons for the point of view should be linked to the point itself and the examples or evidence should be linked to both.

Eva, talking to a friend who has been making disparaging remarks about the city, makes her point: "You can't lump everything in the city together. All big cities have problems. But I like living here because it's one city where things are getting better. There are lots of job opportunities. Crime statistics are down. The city looks nicer every year - more trees, improved parks. They're doing something about the education mess. Enough to get noticed by both the national and international press. You can't beat the entertainment. And people in this city don't have an ‘attitude’. We're not better than others. But we like it here. Entertainment's great. All the cultural stuff you could want. And I have a lot of friends. We care about and watch out for one another."

Eva provides reasons and examples to support her point of view. All of this helps her challenge her friend's point of view.

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