2.5 Recognising And Honouring The Conversational Rights Of Others And Yourself

We all have rights of one kind or another. For example, we all have the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. We have certain conversational rights as well. To take one example — we have the right to withdraw from a conversation if we think the other person is behaving too aggressively.

Understanding your rights, and those of other people, and choosing when to apply them, is an important aspect of being an effective Conversation Manager.

People who feel their rights have been ignored or violated will never join in a conversation to the full.

For instance, John has the right to talk to his 14 year daughter about her behaviour, no matter how reluctant she might be. On the other hand, if Sayed insists on talking to Chandra about his holiday plans, even though Chandra has already indicated that he’s late for a meeting, Sayed is violating Chandra’s conversational rights. Chandra has the right to say "Sorry, some other time," and leave. Always remember, however, that some conversations are simply too important to be delayed, even if the circumstances are less than perfect.

a. Setting the agenda

Let’s take a closer look at the whole subject of conversational rights.

Sometimes, the purpose and direction of a conversation seems to come from nowhere. It just happens. This is often the case when people are just chatting informally. Conversational partners find themselves talking about a range of things. Nothing has been pre-planned. There is no particular order.

Sometimes, however, one party takes the lead in suggesting the agenda or introducing a topic, either before, at the beginning of, or during, a conversation. This can take the form of taking the initiative to tell a story, deliver a message, share a point of view, or make a case. Here’s an example:

Tom and Sue are both surgeons. They happen to meet in a hospital corridor.

Tom says, "Is this a good time to talk about the conference on the latest diabetes treatments? I think we're both going. Maybe we could get more out of it if we coordinate our efforts."

Sue replies, "Sure, I've got a few minutes. And that sounds like a good idea. There are so many meetings at the conference it’s impossible to go to them all. We could go to different meetings and then pool what we've learned. I've got the conference schedule in my office. Let's go over there and see what the possibilities are."

Tom initiates the agenda and Sue is a willing participant.

At other times, both parties collaborate in setting the agenda. This may involve conversational partners agreeing on an agenda beforehand.

For instance, Liz and Zoe have just finished a meal together at a restaurant. Before they go their separate ways, Liz says, "It was a lovely, relaxing evening. But when we get together next week, I'd like to talk some more about the possibility of our going into business together. We've knocked a few ideas around, but I'd like to take a more serious look at it."

Zoe replies, "Of course. It's time to get more serious about it. It's not that we hate our jobs, but I think that both of us would love the challenge. I think we also need to talk about the impact running a business will have on our social lives. We could so get caught up in the excitement of starting a business that we'd forget about its implications for the rest of our lives."

Both Liz and Zoe contribute to setting the agenda for their upcoming conversation.

b. Initiating conversations

The Initiator is the conversational partner who sets the agenda or introduces a topic. For instance, Jack and Terry, good friends, meet for a drink after work.

After a bit of small talk, Jack says, "I'd like to talk about the argument you and I had the other day. It got rather heated. I think we both said things we really didn't mean. I know that both of us have been pretending it didn't happen. But I'd like to talk about it — briefly — and put it behind us. We may even learn something from it."

Jack has proposed an agenda for their conversation. Now the ball is in Terry's court. He has to decide whether he wants to pursue this agenda with Jack or not and, if he does, whether he wants to do it now.

Note that the Initiator is not the same as the Explainer/Teller. If Terry agrees to discuss the argument they have had, then the assumption is that they will do so through dialogue. Both will move in and out of both the Explainer/Teller and Understander role as they discuss the ins and outs of the situation Jack has brought up.

Initiators, in effect, make a request of, or place a demand on, their conversational partners. This is common in conversations that take the form of an interrogation. The police investigator says to the suspect, "Tell me everything about your movements from noon yesterday until noon today." In a more friendly mode, Agatha might say to her friend Abigail, "Tell me all about your trip — every last detail! I'm so envious. I can't wait to hear all about it." Even in these cases, however, the agenda is best pursued through some form of dialogue.

In many, if not most, conversations, both parties become Initiators in informal ways, at one time or another, during the conversation. Gary and Francesca are discussing a variety of issues. Gary initiates a conversation about his lack of success in dieting, and the dialogue that follows has a problem-solving flavour to it. Later in the conversation, Francesca talks about what a great time she and the kids had at the circus, and Gary joins in. The conversation takes on a story-telling flavour. Both are Initiators at one time or another, but both move into and out of both the Explainer/Teller and Understander roles in the ensuing dialogue.

c. Conversational rights

The notion of Initiator returns us to the issue of conversational rights. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation you wished you weren't having? Of course you have. It happens to all of us. Sometimes it's because you are a reluctant Initiator. You don't enjoy having a conversation with your son about his poor grades, but you have to do it for his sake.

At other times it’s because the other party is a reluctant participant in the conversation itself, or in a specific topic within a larger conversation. If you and your son are talking about sports, he may well be with you as a full partner. But when you switch to the issue of poor grades, the boy might well become a reluctant participant. He might also realise, however, that the conversation is inevitable. Many conversations in which both the Initiator and the other party are reluctant participants are simply unavoidable.

d. To initiate or not

But there may be other times when it would be better to exercise your right not to initiate a conversation, even though, objectively, there might be some good reasons for doing so. For instance, it might help Vaughn to get some feedback on his rather disgraceful behaviour at the party last night. But you might choose not to do it. You have a feeling that this would only aggravate ongoing problems between the two of you. Or, you think it won’t make any difference to his behaviour. Or, you fully realise that the two of you need to talk about situations like these because of the affect on your relationship, but this is not the time.

e. To respond or not

You also have conversational rights as to whether you want to participate in a conversation, or pursue an agenda initiated by another. Here are a few circumstances where this could happen.

The moment is wrong for you

You might be preoccupied with something else that needs to be done, or you're in the wrong frame of mind. You could be very tired, for example. If you explain this openly to your conversational partners, they'll often see this as a mark of respect, rather than rejection.

Even if it’s impossible to avoid certain conversations - for instance, a performance feedback session with your boss, you still have a right to try to see to it that it takes place at a favourable time. Let's say that you believe that a project you are leading is about to produce very favourable results. You can ask to have the conversation after the results are in. This will give your boss a more balanced picture of your overall performance.

There isn't enough time

You might only have a few minutes, but you feel the conversation deserves more time than that. If you are rushed, you will not listen very well.

So you might say, "I've got to leave for a doctor's appointment in about ten minutes. We need more time. Anyway, I'm not looking forward to seeing the doctor. I'd be too distracted right now."

Or the Initiator might have only a few minutes for a topic that needs to be explored more fully. Then you might say, "Amy, we need to talk about this, but could we put it off until you have a little more time? It's too important to do in a rushed way."

If the other person is a person in authority, he, or she, might well override your concerns. Then you have to do the best you can.

The subject is out of bounds

For example, the Initiator might want to talk negatively about someone who's not there to speak for herself. If this makes you uncomfortable, say so. That's your privilege.

You might say, "Bob, I'd rather talk to Judy directly about this. It's the only chance we have of having her change the way she's going about the project."

f. The ‘contract’ approach

One way of respecting conversational rights in situations in which you are a reluctant Initiator, or a reluctant responder to someone else's agenda, is to set up a mini conversational ‘contract’. The contract outlines the conditions under which you are willing to engage in the conversation in whatever role. Consider the following examples.

You say to someone who has cornered you when you times is limited, "I'd really like to hear about this, but I have to go in 10 minutes. We could only get started." Then you leave the decision to the other party.

A father says to his son, "We have to talk about school and grades. We can do it now or later. But certainly in the next couple of days. I need you to be in a frame of mind when you’re willing to lay the cards on the table and talk realistically."

You say to a friend, "I'd be glad to talk about our blow-up if we talk about how we both mishandled it. But if this is going to be a blame-the-other-person session, I'd rather not. It's got to be a `we' discussion."

Whether you have misgivings about being an Initiator or responding to another person's agenda, you can probably think of dozen of different mini contracts that might help preserve both your own, and the other person's, conversational rights.

g. It’s your call

In the end, you have to use your judgment. If someone wants to have a conversation that you are reluctant to have, at least at this moment, try to think about how important the conversation might be for the other person. If it's really important, think carefully before rejecting the opportunity to talk. If the other person is hurting in some way, being turned down might prove to be quite distressing. But, in the end, you still have your rights.

The point here is this: Understand your own conversational rights and the rights of others. Respect the conversational rights of others. And be assertive in having others understand and respect your rights.

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