2.7 Reading The Context Of The Conversation And Deciding How Best To Respond

Just because we have the skills needed for effective dialogue doesn’t mean that we always use them well. Conversations are human activities rather than technical endeavours, so there are always ‘other things’ going on besides the messages being conveyed.

An effective Conversation Manager is skilled at ‘reading’ conversational situations and responding to them in thoughtful ways. Social wisdom and effective interpersonal communication are intimately related. Without effective communication skills and values, you cannot be socially competent. Without being socially competent, your skills can easily go astray. Although Mbono knows that he has the right to question one of his boss's decisions, he has sense enough to do it at a time and in a way that is likely to foster dialogue, rather than stimulate an angry reaction. Wisely, Mbono sees no value in annoying or embarrassing his boss.

a. The three components of being socially smart

Or, as our American colleagues would say, being socially ‘savvy’. The components are social intelligence, social competence and social integrity. Let’s look at each.

Social intelligence - awareness

A conversation — whether between spouse and spouse, manager and team member, parent and child, friend and friend — is a social situation. Social intelligence refers to the ability to ‘read’ and understand what's going on in any given social situation.

Although social wisdom refers to all social situations, in this Guide we are looking purely at conversational situations.

Consider Oliver. He's having dinner with friends of his, Nichola and her husband, Nigel. Not long after arriving at their house, Oliver notices that there is some tension between his friends. They are a bit short with each other. They tend to talk to him, rather than to each other. And so forth. He knows something is going on even though he does not know what it is exactly.

Social intelligence includes awareness of not just what's going on with others, but also with yourself. Most of the time you're not just an onlooker, but a participant. If you fail to read what's going on inside yourself, you might end up either messing up a good situation, or making a bad situation worse. Back to that dinner. At the same time that Oliver is reading what is happening between Nichola and Nigel, he is also reading himself. He feels slightly uncomfortable, but he is not really annoyed or on edge. Nor does he spot in himself any tendency to side with either Nichola or Nigel. So this is the first step - awareness of the social situation, including one's own role in it and the emotions at play.

Being socially intelligent is the opposite of being socially naive. In tricky social situations it’s helpful to pause, flip into the Conversation Manager role and ask yourself, "What's going on here?" before returning to either the Explainer/Teller or Understander role.

Social competence - skill

If social intelligence is your ability to read social situations accurately, then social competence is your ability to respond well to what you are reading. Both intelligence and competence are necessary for being socially wise. Oliver has a solid set of communication skills. He knows both Nichola and Nigel well. And he cares a great deal about both of them. Therefore, he has what it takes to respond well to the situation.

Once Oliver spots the warning signals, he knows that he needs to be reasonably cautious. He says to himself, "Well, I don't want to pretend that everything is all right. That would be dishonest. And it would make for a very uncomfortable time for everyone. On the other hand, I don't want to butt in where I don't belong. Nor do I want to make a bad situation worse. However, they trust me. I know I have some leeway with them. Maybe I can be of help here."

If Oliver had become annoyed with the situation, then he might have said something different to himself, such as, "I'm not in a mood to be very helpful. So, unless I get off my high horse, I had better hold my tongue. It's better to wait and see how things develop." He realises that emotional self-control is a large part of social competence. Of course, inner conversations like Oliver's, are usually not as explicit as this. Rather, these are the kinds of sentiments that flit through people's minds in situations like these.

Social integrity — courage

Social integrity refers to your willingness to use whatever social intelligence and communication competence you have to respond to what you read in social situations. Sometimes this takes guts or courage. Since Oliver has a good strong relationship with both Nichola and Nigel individually, and with the two of them as a couple, he decides to take a chance. After sitting down to the meal he says, "It's a bit chilly in here." They fumble around and make a couple of stabs at taking him literally. Finally, Nichola says, "You've noticed." "Yes, I've noticed," Oliver replies in a caring and comforting voice. This breaks the ice.

With Oliver's friendly help, they go on to work through a spat they had earlier in the day. As is often the case, they discover that it was not such a ‘big deal’ after all. They all end up laughing about it and talking about how difficult it is to break the ice after an argument. Everyone wins, including Oliver, who wasn’t looking forward to enduring a tense atmosphere.

All fine and good. But let's consider a different scenario. Let's say that Jake had been the dinner guest instead of Oliver. Jake, not as socially intelligent or interpersonally skilled as Oliver, botches things right from the beginning. He does not immediately sense that there is something wrong. He feels vaguely uneasy but doesn't know why. He tries to solve things by becoming a comedian. His routines fall flat.

When he finally senses that his hosts are not getting along with each other, he becomes annoyed and says to himself, "Well, this is unfair. Inviting me over for a good time and then treating me to this." Time passes and the conversation becomes more and more forced. Jake says to himself, "This is their problem. I'm not riding to the rescue." He drinks too much and begins taking pot shots at his hosts. The dinner ends quickly. They say perfunctory good-byes. It's over.

Understanding what might be helpful in any given social situation helps you use conversational skills well. For instance, if you join a group of your friends who are sitting around and just ‘shooting the breeze’, you might ask yourself, "Is this the best time to talk about an absent friend who seems to be having some problems?" Everyone in the group knows that he is going through something, but it has not been discussed. You might test the waters.

During a lull in the conversation, you might say, "Ben seems to be going through something. I think all of us are concerned, but we haven't talked about it. I'm not sure this is the best time to do so." If someone pipes up and says, "Ben creates a lot of his own problems," and others mutter or nod in assent, this might not be the best time or way to talk about how to help. Instead, when the meeting breaks up and you are walking home with Tracy, you might talk about what's going on and discuss the best way of moving forward.

Take another example. Clare has become used to the indifference of one of her co-workers, Rupert. But today he not only pays a great deal of attention to what she has to say in a team meeting but makes a point to continue the conversation after the meeting. Clare is not the paranoid type, but she is not naive. She is socially intelligent and her antenna goes up a bit. She does not read too much into Rupert's behaviour, but she does notice the change.

Clare is not surprised, then, when a week later, Rupert asks her to put aside one of her favourite projects so that she can work with him on his, one with ‘high visibility’ with senior management. She has prepared herself for this possibility. She calmly gives him the reasons why she wants to stick with her own projects.

b. Practical strategies

Social wisdom runs the gamut from everyday situations to critical life events. Here are some of the things, which enhance social competence in conversations.

Choosing the right time

Many conversations fail simply because they take place at the wrong time or under the wrong circumstances. Here are some examples.

Tom is in the middle of his homework, concentrating on an essay he’s writing, when his mother decides she wants to talk to him about the state of his room. Will Tom want to listen?

Anne is seething with frustration because she's lost her handbag. She's trying to work out what to do about her credit cards. Her partner picks that moment to begin a conversation about their plans for the weekend. Is Anne in the right mood?

Ahmed is just about to go to an important meeting when his supervisor decides to explain a complicated business matter that really requires 20 minutes of discussion to do it justice. Are the circumstances right?

Ellen is watching her favourite TV show when her husband chooses to talk about his ideas for a new car. Is he going to get her full attention?

Before starting a conversation, the skilled communicator tries to evaluate the situation. So, check for signs that the other person is ready and able to join in. Is your conversational partner preoccupied with something else? Are there lots of distractions around? Is he or she in the right frame of mind? Is there time available to complete the conversation without being under excessive pressure? How important is the issue that you want to discuss in the first place?

If you suspect the time might not be right, ask the other person if it's okay to talk. When some people telephone others, they often ask, "Is this a good time to talk?" This is a sign of respect. It also gives the person at the other end of the line some options. "I'm in the middle of something right now. Can I call you back in about an hour?"

It's also important to ask yourself if the right time for you. Are you in the right frame of mind? If you're feeling very agitated, for example, it could be a good idea to put off the discussion. Strong emotions can lead to strong words, and strong words can lead to strong reactions.

Choosing the right setting

If it's the setting that's wrong, you could create a different one. For instance, if a mother wants to have an important conversation with her son, she might suggest that they both take the dog for a walk to avoid the distractions of a bustling household.

Giving a teenager a dressing down in front of his peers will probably prove humiliating for him. He's at a time in his life when his standing in his peer group is one of his major concerns.

Being careful about sensitive subjects

Socially competent communicators know whether to address, put off, or avoid a sensitive subject. Angie is at a party. She is about to talk about a wonderful trip to Europe she had the previous summer. But she catches herself. A friend of a number of people at the party was recently killed in a mugging in Europe. This is not the best time to talk about her great experiences.

Sigmund is being berated by his brother, Anatole, for not spending enough time with him and his family. It's Anatole's harsh style that keeps Sigmund away in the first place. Anatole does not take feedback or criticism well. Anatole's wife seems hardened to her husband's style. Sigmund decides to put out a feeler. He says, "It would be stupid of me to make inane excuses, but if I were to tell you why, you wouldn't like it." Anatole jumps up and shouts. "What do you mean by that?" Sigmund pauses and then says calmly, "Wait a minute. You jump up when people say the ‘wrong thing.’ You get angry quickly, like now. So how can we have a decent conversation under these conditions?" Anatole sits back down looking a little cowed and says nothing. Sigmund says to himself, "This might be my chance. This just might be my chance."

There is one caution, however. There is no such thing as the perfect time and the perfect set of circumstances. What is written here should not be used as an excuse for avoiding conversations that should be held, or for holding conversations that should be put off. Effective communicators think in terms of a reasonable time, a reasonable set of circumstances, and a reasonable setting. Reasonable does not mean perfect. Putting off needed conversations often demonstrates a lack of social integrity, that is, guts. In the example above, Sigmund didn't wait for the perfect time. Rather, he decides to seize a present opportunity.

Recovering from gaffes

Narendra meets with his friend, Evelyn, and her husband, Josh, for a cup of coffee. Evelyn seems a bit listless. Neither she nor Josh responds very well to his conversational overtures. Since they say little to each other, Narendra says to himself, "Maybe they've had an argument. I'll let them alone." He remains his chipper self, but the conversation is going nowhere. Finally, he says to himself, "This is really uncharacteristic of them. Maybe something is really wrong. They could have called off our getting together, but they didn't."

Finally, he says, "You two haven't been at each other again, have you? It's so easy to see when you've had a fight. What can I do to get you guys talking again so that we can all cheer up?"

Evelyn and Josh look at each other, then Josh says somewhat angrily, "It's nothing like that, Len. We're devastated … We just found out that we were turned down for the adoption we thought was all decided … I guess we should have told you right away."

Narendra tried to read the situation, but didn't do so well. His exploratory remarks should have been much more tentative such as, "You guys don't seem quite yourselves today. Anything going on?" And so his response is socially incompetent.

He does his best to recover by saying, "I knew something was wrong, but had no idea how serious it was. So I just picked something out of the air to get you guys going. Please forgive my brashness. And stupidity. But tell me more about the adoption. The way you talked, it sounded like a done deal."

Leonard recovers. Note that he does not dwell on his stupidity. He apologises and quickly returns to their crisis. Evelyn explains that it had nothing to do with them. The mother just changed her mind.

c. Being careful of humour

What about humour? Humour is a two-edged sword. Humour can add a great deal of charm to a conversation. But there are also some caveats, which the socially competent person understands and lives by. First, humour is like a spice or condiment. Used sparingly, it adds a great deal. Too much spoils the broth. Second, what is humorous to you might not be so to someone else. If so, humour might well offend, rather than engage, your conversational partner.

Humour that puts the other person down might seem to make a hit at the time, but can harm a relationship in the longer term. Making someone the butt of a joke is not particularly funny. It seems to fail both the social intelligence and social competence tests. Some people have a knack of poking fun at themselves in moderation. Would you like to have someone like that, or someone who specialises in poking fun at others, as your dinner partner?

That said, is good-hearted kidding around and poking fun at one another all that bad? Does social competence mean that I must be a stick in the mud? Moralistic? A prude? Is there no place for being clever? There are no hard and fast answers to questions like these. Socially wise communicators size up social situations instinctively and act accordingly.

d. Look who’s talking — drawing on your inner conversations

When two people are talking, there are actually three conversations going on. Two of them are silent.

There's the external conversation — not only the words themselves, but also the way they're spoken and the body language that goes with them. This is the conversation an onlooker could witness.

Then there are the conversations that go on privately inside each person's head. We ‘talk’ to ourselves regularly, even when we are talking with others.

Internal conversations — or self-talk — are double-edged swords. The challenge? How to use them without becoming preoccupied with them.

Good communicators know that their own internal conversations can be full of buried treasure if it’s carefully mined and brought to the surface when it seems useful. How many times have you finished a conversation with someone and then later on wished you'd said more of the things that were on your mind at the time?

Trish is having a conversation with Albert. During the conversation she says to herself something like this, "He might not realise it, but he's really being a bully right now." But she says nothing. While driving home, she says to herself, "I let him play the bully once more. Unless I speak out at the time, he'll keep playing that game."

Dan is talking with his boss, Dave. Dan says to himself, "Something seems to be bothering him, but he's not saying what it is." When he spots an opening in the conversation, he says to Dave, "I may be mistaken, but it seems that something's bugging you." Dave stops, looks to the side, then looks back and says, "Wayne (Dave’s boss) just told me that if we don't bring this project in on time and on budget, I'm history." They go on to have a good conversation about how to handle the crisis.

Dot is talking with Grace about a project they are both involved with at a local charity. Grace hasn't been doing her part of the work. She misses deadlines. The work she does is shoddy at times. During the conversation, Dot says to herself, "I've got to find a way to confront her about this." Later in the conversation, after Grace has talked about some problems she's having with her husband, and begins to look a bit stressed, Dot says to herself, "This is not the best moment to discuss her poor work. But it has to be done sometime soon."

Of course, some inner conversations should stay private. They might be hurtful or offensive if brought out into the open. Or they are irrelevant. They will destroy the conversational climate. Edgar is put off by the way his daughter's teacher keeps putting his hand to his mouth during the conversation. He notes his discomfort and has a passing thought, "I wonder if I've got any little habits like that." But, since all of this is irrelevant to the conversation they are having, he dismisses these thoughts and focuses more carefully on the substantial issues at hand.

We don't usually plan our inner conversations. They just are. We all have them. Staying in touch with them, without being distracted by them, is the trick. Good communicators use their content to improve the quality of the dialogue. Poor communicators fail to notice their value, use them too sparingly, are distracted by them, or overuse them.

Good communicators also know that their conversational partners, like themselves, are having their own private chat. Taking note of this from time to time can help you ‘get inside’ the other person. Or at least, it makes you realise that you're not sure of what's going on inside. Others' verbal and nonverbal behaviour give hints about what's going on inside. Tapping into others' inner conversations can be useful, if done with tact. Mark is talking with Steve. Steve seems a bit distracted. Mark knows that Steve is having an important inner conversation.

Mark takes a chance, saying, "If it wasn’t such a cliché, I'd say, ‘a penny for your thoughts’."

Steve looks startled, then laughs and says, "You’ve noticed."

Mark says, "I've been noticing for about ten minutes. But I didn't want to butt in."

At that point, Steve shares with him a concern that his been bothering him for a couple of days.

Silent conversations are not all doom and gloom. Janice, a sales rep for a company that sells multimedia equipment, is in the middle of a sales pitch with a client.

Eventually she says, "It's obvious that you've been listening carefully to what I've had to say, but [smiling] it's hard for me to know what you're saying to yourself about all this."

The client chuckles and says, "Well, if this digital light projector is as good and as versatile as you say it’s, it would be perfect for us. But I need a demonstration and I need it soon."

Her intervention moves the conversation forward and they go on to arrange the demonstration.

e. Guidelines for making use of your inner conversations

Let’s close with a few simple guidelines to help you make hay out of inner conversations – both your own and those of others:

Self-awareness. Stay in touch with your inner voice.

Self-control. Don't get distracted by your conversations with yourself.

Relevance. Stay in touch with the purpose of your conversation with your partner.

Sensitivity. Choose with care which bits you move from the silent to the external conversation.

Courage. Have the guts to use sensitive parts of your silent conversation if they are likely to help.

Awareness of others. Read signs that others are having significant conversations with themselves.

Assertiveness. Tactfully ask to be ‘admitted’ if you think there is some value to be gained.

These are hardly logical steps to be moved through mechanically. High-level communicators end up using the contents of their silent conversations instinctively.

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