3.3 Putting Your Conversational Partner In The Picture

Folk stories start with “Once Upon A Time …” for a good reason. The opening paragraph is there to put the reader in the picture, to prepare them for the story that follows. The same idea works well in conversations.

a. The value of providing background

When you’re in the Explainer/Teller role, your message, story, point of view, or case, will be better understood by your conversational partners if you provide the necessary background or context for the topics, or issues, you’re discussing. Too often, people launch right into the middle of things, forcing those in the Understander role to ask themselves, "Where is this guy coming from? And where is he going?" The impact of the story, message, point of view, or case is lost.

The value of providing background is well appreciated by communication professionals. Film directors, for instance, typically start a movie with a few key scenes that quickly establish the background — where the story is set (desert), when (1940, Second World War), who (commandos), key characters (Captain Lance Turbo, hard nut.) And so on.

Comedians are also experts at setting context very efficiently in just a few well-chosen lines. “There was an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Spaniard, marooned on a desert island. They’d been there for two months and were now down to their very last supplies …”

Another example: traditional children’s stories often begin with, “Once Upon A Time”, which leads into a paragraph describing the set-up. “Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a tall castle in a land where everyone was rich and beautiful but very sad …”

So when you're setting up your story, or preparing your message, or formulating your point of view, or marshalling your case, think about what's already inside the mind of those in the Understander role. Ask yourself: "What can I safely assume they already know?" Or to put it another way: "What do I need to tell them by way of background? Do they know the people I'm talking about? Is the context clear? Do they understand the situation I want to talk about?"

b. Using context when telling stories or giving explanations and examples

The good Explainer/Teller sets the scene in the other person's mind by covering the basics such as who, what, where, and when first. In the following example, Douglas is talking to his wife about a critical meeting he had at work. Consider two different ways in which Douglas could introduce the topic.

For instance, he might have started by saying, "Frankly, I think that Hugh was trying to pull a fast one at yesterday's meeting. It was a case of a real insider trying to pull the wool over the eyes of outsiders."

In this scenario, Douglas leaps right into the middle of things. He provides a headline, but more than a headline is needed. His wife is a bit confused, because she doesn't know all the players in this drama.

Let's consider the same scenario in which Douglas begins by providing some background.

He begins by saying, "You know I was disgruntled when I came back from my trip to New York. The politics of the meeting upset me. Picture this. There were six of us at the meeting. Only when we got there did we find out that it was about the new project. A big one. But Paul, the initiator of the project, was not there. Nor was Keith, his assistant. Five of us were from different offices outside New York. The sixth was Hugh, Paul's boss. The only New York person. So he was the only one totally familiar with the project.

"Frankly, I think that Hugh was trying to pull a fast one at the meeting. Here's what happened …"

The aim is to paint enough of the picture for the other person to begin to ‘be there’ with you. It's too easy to start off a story part way through without even realising it. For instance, if you've been mulling over something for a while before you talk about it, there's often a temptation to begin the story at the point where you left it in your mind. This doesn't work. On the other hand, setting the scene is a way of engaging the attention of your conversational partners.

c. Providing background with messages

In the same way, if you want to get your message across clearly and forcefully, provide some background. Consider the ways two different members of the executive committee of a community organisation start a message-focused conversation. Both are members of the organisation's executive committee. At an executive committee meeting a decision has been taken to revise the community's fund-raising programme.

The first executive-committee member, Cyril, starts a meeting with a small group of people from the community by saying, "Let me be blunt. Our fund-raising programme is a disaster. We're going to have to make substantial changes. Let me list the changes I think we have to make. First …"

This in-your-face approach might work. It depends on what the players are like, what their history together has been, and other variables. But if discussion is what is needed, this is not the way to go.

Dina, another other member of the executive committee, meets later in the week with a different group of people.

Here's how she opens the discussion. "We've just had an executive committee meeting in which we debated the ins and outs of our fund-raising programme. Let me tell you a little bit about the programme. Its first phase is aimed at needed repairs in the community centre. There are two problems. If the repairs are not made soon, costs will escalate dramatically. Second, there is the possibility that council building inspectors will close the centre down until the repairs are made.

"The fund-raising programme is not a sound one. To be honest, we threw one together thinking that all we needed to do was count on the generosity of the members of the community. We were wrong. The community needs the generosity of its members, but first it needs your ideas on how to mount an intelligent fund-raising programme, that the entire community can buy into. That said, let's talk about it."

Dina provides background and context. And the spirit of her introduction is much more collaborative.

In the following example, Lisa, a college student, is talking to her college advisor. Her message is that she will not return for her next year. She's decided to go to a different college.

She could have said something like this, "I've decided to leave the college. It's just not working for me. I'd like some help on taking care of the formalities that will make the transition as smooth as possible."

Instead, she provides some context for her message, setting the conversation up as an exit interview. "When I was thinking about this conversation, I said to myself that I didn't want to sound negative. So I think it's important to tell you what I expected from a college. First, I expected the courses to be teaching me skills that were relevant to my future career. Second, I wanted lots of opportunities to mix with others students at a meaningful level …”

Lisa does not just give a speech. She says what she has to say in dialogue with her advisor. She also includes her rating of the college on these two characteristics. She then tells her advisor of her decision not to return. Perhaps you’re thinking, "Isn't this a bit too mature for a college student?" Perhaps.

d. Putting your point of view in context

When you’re sharing your point of view, providing some context can be very helpful. Rod is at a meeting in the community centre. The issue is whether to allow a group to take over a small shuttered hotel and turn it into a hospice for people with AIDS.

He could have said simply, "I've decided to vote for the proposal. I think it's right."

Instead he puts his fellow community members in the picture by saying, "You all know how conservative I am. You all also know how much I have fought to preserve the best in our community. Some of you have even accused me of being too conservative, not wanting any changes in the community. What I am about to say violates none of that."

He goes on to give his point of view. He believes that opening the hospice will benefit, rather than harm, the community and he gives his reasons.

e. Providing context in making a case

Finally, when you’re making a case, putting your conversational partners in the picture can help them to be better disposed to listen to, and eventually to buy into, the case you’re making. Leonora represents a group of concerned parents in an inner city neighbourhood. In a meeting with her local council representative, Nat Brown, concerning the persistence of drug dealing on the streets, she wants to make a case for ‘community policing’, a collaborative effort between members of the community and the local police.

She begins by saying something like this: "Mr. Brown, I'd like to take a few minutes to do three things. First, I'd like to review what the city has done up to this point to try to get rid of the dealers. Second, I'd like to do a quick review of the reasons why we distrust the local police. Third, I'd like to make a suggestion about how we can work together.”

She goes on to spell out the history of the failure of the city to cope with the drug problem in her neighbourhood, and to outline mistakes that have been made on both sides in the tortured relationship between the community and the local police. The history is painful to listen to, but it is factual. Once the stage has been set, she begins to make the case for community policing.

The trick is to provide enough context to help those in the Understander role pick up quickly on what your main points are. If you give too much background, your conversational partners might become distracted and the impact of your story, message, point of view, or case might be dissipated or even lost. While you don't want your conversational partners saying such things as, "Come on, get to the point," you do want to provide enough background to create mutual understanding.

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