1.2 Introduction To Talkworks System

Chapter contents

This chapter introduces you to the basics of the TalkWorks interpersonal communication model that’s at the core of The Guide. The chapter is organised into five topics.

a. Learning from the best

Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones — a great ‘natural-born’ communicator, an exemplar of all that’s best in human communication.

People like this do exist, but they are a rare breed. (It helps enormously to grow up surrounded by exceptionally good role models.) This is not the lot of most human beings. Most of us have to consciously learn how to become good communicators. Ideally, we would have learned at an early age. But if that didn't happen, then the time to start is now. It’s never too early, or too late, to make the most of our potential.

While the secrets of effective communication can be found in the exemplars we meet, they are often difficult to identify in any detailed, systematic way. We just ‘know’ that Mary is particularly clear and interesting to listen to. Equally, we just ‘know’ that Mary is a great listener and questioner. Exactly what is it that Mary ‘does’ that makes her stand out as a communicator? What particular ‘values’ drive her conversational behaviour? Such things are difficult to see without help.

The purpose of The Guide, then, is to systematically uncover both the skills of interpersonal communication and the wisdom needed to use them at the service of satisfying relationships.

If you ask people from a diversity of backgrounds to describe the ingredients of a ‘great conversation’, the same points emerge again and again. (We know because we’ve done it.)

At heart, it seems that we all have very similar views about what constitutes a good conversation. It includes qualities such as:

  • Both people get the chance to have their say. It’s properly two-way.
  • There's a willingness on both sides to be open to each other’s points of view.
  • Even if the subject is sensitive, the important things still get said because the conversation is carried out in an atmosphere of trust.
  • People behave respectfully towards each other.
  • The conversation is worthwhile. It makes a difference. Something useful happens as a result.

We call conversations with these characteristics ‘dialogue’. The Guide aims to help you understand and adopt the key principles and practices of dialogue — not so you can become the ‘perfect communicator’ but so you can improve the overall quality of your conversations, and in so, doing improve the overall quality your own life, and of those around you.

b. The three key roles of dialogue

The TalkWorks model of communication recognises that we play three quite different roles at various times in our conversations.

Think for a moment about what goes on in a conversation.

For example, imagine you’re having a conversation with John, a neighbour and friend of yours. You’re talking about how to best help Denise — another neighbour — who you both think is in danger of being threatened by her ex-husband.

Let’s look at three passages from the conversation.

In the first passage, you tell John what you think should be done about the problem. In your opinion, the right thing to do is to get the police involved without delay. You explain your reasoning — it’s better to be safe than sorry.

In the second passage, John tells you how he sees the situation. He has a different view to you. He believes that the first step should be to talk to Denise. He explains his thinking — in his experience, without some evidence of a crime, the police are unlikely to get involved.

In the third passage, John tells you about a disturbing experience he had with the local police a few years ago. In the middle of his story, you suddenly remember that you’ve mislaid your mobile phone, and you start to wonder where it could possibly be. This thinking drowns out John’s voice. After a few moments, you return to the conversation and realise that you are lost. So you say to John, “Sorry, can you repeat what you just said? Completely my fault. I was thinking about something else. I’m back with you now!”

Because you want to sort out your phone problem and are finding it hard to concentrate on the issue about Denise, you decide to bring the conversation to a close and talk about it in more detail later on.

Those three passages illustrate the three roles that we play — and switch between —in all our conversations. The question is, what kind of a job do we do in each role?

In the first passage, you are in the Explainer/Teller role. This is the role you are in whenever you have a point of view to share, a story to tell, a proposal to make, a feeling to describe, an idea to explain. In the Explainer/Teller role, your aim is simple — you want to be understood. To maximise the chances of this happening, you need to engage the other person’s attention and be easy to follow. What you require of the other person is for him, or her, to listen hard to what you’re saying, and to take your main points on board for consideration.

In the second passage, you are in the Understander role. Your job is to understand clearly and accurately John’s main points. This may well involve asking questions to expand or check your understanding. This is the role you should be in when the other person is doing the Explainer/Teller job. There’s no point in one person talking if the other person isn’t listening.

In the third passage, you are in the role of Conversation Manager. You are in this role whenever you say, or do, things that are intended to help a conversation function properly and produce a worthwhile outcome. Other things you might do in the Conversation Manager role include; setting the ‘agenda’ for a conversation, checking to make sure you’re giving the other person sufficient opportunity to talk, monitoring and managing your emotions as they ebb and flow during the conversation.

In the case of your conversation with John about Denise, your first intervention in the Conversation Manager role was aimed at ‘repairing’ a mistake you’d made — failing to pay attention. Your second intervention in the role was to bring the conversation to a close.

c. Three different skill sets

For a conversation to work well, especially when dealing with sensitive or particularly important matters, you need to be skilled and wise in each of the three roles.

Not surprisingly, since the roles are very different, the set of skills and strategies associated with each role are very different.

Here are some examples:

  • A key Explainer/Teller skill is being able to engage people’s attention.
  • A key Understander skill is checking to see if your understanding is correct.
  • A key Conversation Manager skill is choosing the right time and setting for a conversation to take place, so as to maximise its chances of success.

TalkWorks recognises a total of 25 key skills, or positive habits, spread between the three key roles, that’s between eight and ten distinct skills or positive habits per role.

The point is simple. Follow these principles and your conversations will work better.

d. What’s your reaction to the ‘skills’ approach?

A common reaction to a skills-based approach to more effective conversations, is this: Conversations don't look or sound like this! Fair enough. But the same thing could be said of learning a lot of different skills. Learning skills is always awkward in the beginning. Remember the first time you tried to ride a bicycle or use a computer? The beginner skier, going through the required agonies on the novices' slope, might well say: “Skiing doesn't look like this in the movies!” Of course not.

Focusing on individual conversational skills has its problems. Those who like the big picture might wince when they see that conversation is being divided up into little bits. For others this is comforting. They have misgivings about an ambitious goal like "getting better at communication" and would approach the process step by step. If you are exploring your interpersonal communication style for the first time, many of the bits might seem a somewhat choppy. Things smooth out as the skills are integrated into day-to-day conversations. The competent communicator ultimately delivers each skill in the right way at the right moment - and does so as second nature.

e. The dialogue promise

One way to set about improving your communication behaviour is to commit to the following oath.

  • I refuse to be a victim of poor communication.
  • I will do everything I can to make sure that I am understood clearly by the other person. I see this as my personal responsibility.
  • I will do everything to ensure that I listen with an open mind and build an accurate understanding of what the other person wishes to communicate. I see this as my responsibility.
  • I will do everything I can to ensure that the conversation is conducted in the spirit of dialogue. This, too, is my responsibility.

Taking this degree of responsibility for the effectiveness of our communication is not common. Instinctively, we tend to blame the other person when communication goes wrong.

“It’s Jane’s fault for not understanding me.” “It’s Des’s fault for not being clear with me.” This is life seen from the victim perspective. Nobody benefits from it.

There is another way. And that’s to take responsibility for what happens during your conversations.

Suppose you tell a friend about a difficult decision facing you at home. After explaining the problem you're having, you ask your friend what he might do in a similar situation. As you listen to his response, you realise that your friend really hasn’t understood you at all.

Who was responsible for the misunderstanding? You, or your friend? Well, even though mistakes might have been made on both sides, you have to take prime responsibility. It’s your job in the Explainer/Teller role, not only to share your ideas clearly but also, certainly in important matters, to make sure that they have been accurately understood. The responsible communicator, after realising that he’s not been understood, tries to explain things again, this time perhaps from a different angle.

Let’s take another situation. You have asked your colleague to explain how to use a new piece of software. She spends 10 minutes running through the basics and then leaves you to try it on your own. You discover that you still don’t understand how it works. Whose fault is this? Yours or your colleagues? Again, you have to take prime responsibility. When you are in the Understander role, the only person who knows if something is clear or not, is you … so the responsibility must be yours.

The same principle applies to the Conversation Manager role. Imagine you are talking with a tradesman, who has botched a job in your house. You want him to understand how disappointed you are in his shoddy workmanship. You find his cocky attitude difficult to stomach. After a few minutes, you completely lose your temper and the builder walks away. Who’s to blame for you losing your temper? You or the builder? Well, since it’s impossible to control other people’s emotions, but quite possible to control one’s own, the responsibility must be yours.

The bottom line is — if you want to make things better, take personal responsibility for the quality of your conversations.

f. A system of skills and wisdom

The system expounded by the TalkWorks Guide is not just about skills. Rather, it presents an interrelated package of communication skills and practices, integrated around the give-and-take of dialogue and permeated with the values, attitudes, and wisdom that make for better relationships. It includes social wisdom and, at least, an implicit understanding of the ‘shadow side’ of communication. As such, it’s an interpersonal communication system. Mastering the system as a whole is the road to interpersonal communication competence.

A critic might say, "There are so many things to worry about in life. Improving communication is not a top priority. I'm not sure that people need to get better at it, or that it would make a difference if they were to do so. Most people are good enough at it. If people thought that this kind of systematic approach to interpersonal communication were important, they'd do something about it. But most people don't do much about it at all. So, from a practical perspective, it doesn't seem to be that important."

Getting better at any of the ‘forgotten’ life skills is, admittedly, not a conscious priority. Just because people don't talk directly about good or poor communication does not mean that it does not concern them. When asked, most people say that they would like to become better communicators. They have some idea that poor communication limits their options.

Poor communication costs each of us, personally, more than we realise. Just because people don't reflect on the costs does not mean that they are not real. Those who do think about the cost associated with poor communication have a feeling that the costs are significant. Everyday language is filled with phrases such as, "I just don’t ‘get’ her,” or, "I don't know how to get through to her."

People also know, at least vaguely, that better communication can increase their options in some way. They know that it can enhance interpersonal relationships. In the end, however, better communication is not an end in itself. The goal is better communication for a better life.

The case for better interpersonal communication should not be either overstated or understated.

Effective communication is not a magic potion that will solve all human problems. Economic, political, social, and psychological forces can contribute to either human misery or human happiness. Increasing interpersonal communication effectiveness will not sweep all misery away. On the other hand, effective communication needs to be recognised for what it is — the key enabling skill of life. The Number 1 Skill.

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