2.9 Repairing Conversations

Even the best communicators are often less than perfect, but it’s always possible for you to catch yourself making a mistake — and fix it — especially if it looks like undermining the conversation in a significant way.

For instance, Anita has not been listening to her neighbour, Brad, because she doesn't like him and has even made a cynical comment or two about him. But she catches herself and says silently, "Well, even though I don't like him, this doesn’t mean that I shouldn't respect him. Also, he's talking about an issue that affects the neighborhood, so I should hear him out." She then goes on to listen to Brad more carefully and to have a civil interchange with him. Her conversational repair centers round putting respect back into the conversation.

The topic of conversational repair is best explored after you’ve first become familiar with the full range of Understander and Explainer/Teller skills. To be able to fix a mistake (the purpose of conversational repair) it’s obviously necessary to know what the ‘right’ way is.

a. We all make mistakes

From time to time, we all makes mistakes in the way we communicate with others. Even people with all the skills and wisdom outlined to this point, fail to use them on occasion. Or they run into a lazy spell. There are even times when they don't give a hoot. They let their emotions get the better of them. They get lost in their own agendas and forget the other person. They ‘turn off’. Whatever.

But all is not lost. Often, an inner voice nudges them. The silent message is, "This conversation is not going right. And you know it isn't." An added message might be, "Put it right or put it off." This is the beginning of conversational repair - resetting the conversation and correcting the mistakes you have made.

Private repair

There are degrees of conversational repair. In the ‘lite’ form, you realise that you are not engaging in dialogue as well as you might in either Explainer/Teller, or Understander role, or both. You are making relatively small mistakes. You are not listening well. Or you are not getting your message across very clearly. If this is the case, then you can merely make the required adjustments. You realise you could communicate your point more clearly, and you do so. You realise you could listen in a less filtered way, and you do so. You do these things without mentioning anything to your conversational partner.

Public repair

At the other end of the scale we have full-blown conversational repair. The ‘heavy’ form of repair often requires a ‘time out’. In effect you say, "Hold on. I've been messing up this conversation and I want to put it straight."

For instance, Dorothy and Anne have been talking about a mutual problem they have with Francis, a friend. Finally, Dorothy says, “Anne, could we stop for a moment? To tell the truth I haven't been listening very well. I had a very late night with the kids and I'm pretty tired. But certainly not too tired to discuss our problem with Francis. Both of us are going to be seeing a lot of him this summer. I've got plenty of energy for that."

Dorothy does not use the term ‘time out’, nor is it necessary. But, in effect, that's what's she's saying: "I'd like to take time out to rectify my mistake and reset this conversation."

b. The many faces of repair

The conversation may be flawed on your part because of significant mistakes in one or more of the following ways:

You are not engaging in true dialogue.

You have not been taking responsibility for the conversation.

You have done little to create the right climate.

You have allowed yourself to slip - or fall headlong - into assumption making.

You and your partner are talking at cross-purposes.

You have made significant mistakes in the Explainer/Teller role.

You have made significant mistakes in the Understander role.

Let's see what conversational repair looks like in each of these categories.

In the following examples one of the parties realises that he or she has been making some kind of mistake and expresses a desire to reset the conversation. The offending party openly ‘confesses’ to the other. It’s a way of ‘apologising’ to your conversational partner. It’s not always necessary or even useful to reset a conversation so explicitly. You have to decide whether to go the private, or the public, repair route. It goes without saying that no attempt is made here to give examples of all possible conversational mistakes.

c. Repairing mistakes made in the Conversation Manager role

The Conversational Manager role is more concerned with the process of a conversation than with the content of what’s being communicated (hopefully in both directions). For example, it’s concerned with making the sure the climate of the conversation is healthy and supports good communication. The quality of a conversation’s climate is influenced by a whole range of factors, from the level of respect present, to the degree of emotional control being displayed. In other words, Conversation Manager is a very wide-ranging role.

Think of the full set of Conversation Manager skills mentioned in this Guide. Each can form the basis for an act of conversational repair.

Dialogue mistakes

Caroline comes to the realisation that she has not been engaging is a true dialogue with George. The conversation has been one-sided and she has not been picking up cues from George that he wants more interaction.

She stops and says: "Good grief! I have been going on and on. I've even seen you start to say something and then interrupted you. Just steamrolling along. I’m sorry, George. I really do want to talk with you rather than at you."

Dialogue requires some kind of turn-taking, connecting, mutual influence, give-and-take, and co-creating of outcome. If you have fallen into a monologue, or are hogging the conversation, then you can call ‘time out’ or find some other way to reset the conversation.

Responsibility mistakes

At times you probably come to conversations half-heartedly. Right from the beginning, you’re not all there. Or during the conversation you get lazy. You may start out by taking responsibility for your part of the conversation, even going more than halfway. But then your energy or enthusiasm wanes. Your conversational partner is forced to carry most of the load.

In the following conversation, Ron is interviewing Jeff, who has applied to work as a volunteer in the hospital's hospice programme. This is Ron's fourth interview of the day. Instead of giving shape to the interview, he has allowed Jeff to give rather long answers to overly vague questions.

Ron catches himself and says, “Jeff, let me interrupt for a moment. For me, the best interviews are ones with a lot of interaction between the interviewers and the person being interviewed. I've not been following that principle. I've been letting you do all the work. From now on, I'd like the interview to have more of the feel of a dialogue about it.”

"So, there are a number of volunteer schemes here. I'm curious why you've chosen to volunteer for the hospice programme, in particular."

Ron shakes off his lethargy and works hard at the interactive mode of interviewing that provides the best results.

Unwarranted assumptions and misunderstandings

In conversations, we too easily fall into assumption-making and mind-reading. We become lax, forgetting that misunderstanding is the norm and can often infect a whole conversation, in both Understander and Explainer/Teller roles.

Jennifer and Carl, brother and sister, have been talking about the upcoming wedding of their younger brother, Sam. During their conversation, Jennifer realises that she has fallen into the assumption-making trap. This has led to a certain amount of misunderstanding on her part.

Jennifer catches herself and moves to reset the conversation. "Hold on, Carl. I started this conversation with the assumption that you don't really like Sam, that you more or less tolerate him because he's part of the family. I've been filtering everything you said through that assumption. And it’s behind a lot of what I’ve said as well. Now I'm not at all sure what you’re attitude towards Sam really is.”

Carl replies, "No, I actually like Sam… . Well, at least I admire him. He's so talented. My point is that he has a couple of habits that annoy other members of the family. You know, when talent becomes arrogance. But I haven't had the guts to tell him."

Because of her initial assumption, Jennifer gave a negative twist to just about everything that Carl was saying about Sam. And it was also influencing what she said. Had she not reset the conversation, the misunderstanding would have continued and neither Carl, nor Sam, would have had a fair deal.

Mistakes in communicating purpose

It helps when both parties in a conversation know the general purpose of the conversation. While it’s not necessary to state the purpose, or purposes, explicitly all the time, it’s essential the person who initiates the conversation with a specific purpose, or agenda, in mind communicate that purpose to the other. While there are hidden agendas in many conversations, this is hardly in keeping with the mutuality values essential for dialogue. If both parties do not have a pretty good idea of what the purpose of the conversation is, they may end up talking at cross-purposes.

Harry says to his friend, Charles, "Let's go out and have a beer after work." Charles says, "Sure." Charles assumes that they are going out to relax. Therefore, even when Harry brings up more serious issues while they are in the pub, Charles makes light of them. They are talking at cross-purposes.

Finally, Harry says to Charles, "I really asked you out to talk about a problem I'm having with Jill. I realise now that I should have said that to you. We could easily talk about this some other time, unless you’re in the mood now, in which case, I’d really appreciate talking through some of the stuff that’s going on between us. But only if you promise me that you're not doing it under pressure. Really, we can do it some other time."

Despite this, Charles might still feel under some pressure, but at least he has been given the option. He has been made aware of his conversational rights. The next move is his.

Playing a win-lose game

Ben and Tony are having a somewhat heated conversation about why the book club discussion they hosted went so wrong. In the middle of the conversation, Ben catches himself playing a win-lose game. He realises that he has been acting like a prosecuting lawyer rather than a friend. This has created a very poor climate for dialogue.

He says, "Wait a minute, Ben. I've been a bit relentless in trying to show you what you did wrong. Like a prosecutor in some lousy TV movie … I think we both made mistakes in setting up the discussion. But it's probably more important to learn from what we did. I'm not helping matters by turning this conversation into a courtroom scene."

The climate can be poor for many different reasons. Good communicators always have their hands on the ‘pulse’ of the conversation. The inner voice says, "This is not going well. What's going on?"

Emotional gaffes

If some kind of inappropriate emotional expression has damaged the climate of a conversation, it is possible to recover.

Early in a conversation about a problem with Rick, their son, Judith blows up at her husband, Sean, yelling, "Will you please give me the opportunity to say what I want to say before interrupting? It's only common courtesy, you know!"

Sean doesn't respond. He retreats, nodding every once in a while and interjecting a word or two here and there.

A bit later in the conversation, Judith pauses and says, "I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier. It certainly didn't help things. I was so confused about what I was saying. I know you were trying to be helpful by asking me questions, but they were just putting me on edge."

Sean replies, "Well, at the time I said to myself, ‘Where did that come from?’ And I did resent it. I thought I was just trying to help you clarify what you were trying to say. But I can see it must have sounded like a detective grilling you."

They both play a part in re-establishing an emotional climate that helps them talk about tricky parenting issues.

Violations of conversational rights

What if you find yourself in the middle of a conversation that you really don't want to be having at that particular time? One option is to put it off. Ginny is talking with her husband, Cecil, about their son and college.

At one point in the conversation Cecil says, "Ginny, I'm not doing this topic justice. I know that you've been looking forward to talking about where Kim might go to college, but there are too many other things on my mind this week. Let's put if off for a week or so. We do have time."

Cecil finally says what he should have said at the beginning.

Another option, of course, is to find a compromise that is agreeable to both you and your conversational partner. Enya and her husband, Georgio, run a small family business. Enya finds herself in the middle of a conversation with Georgio about a petition they are drawing up to get their candidate on the ballot for the local council.

She finally says, "Georgio, I find that I'm not listening. And I'm beginning to get angry. Don't get me wrong. I'm angry with myself. This is not a good time for me to have this discussion. I'm exhausted and Ben has come down with the flu. Let me suggest something. Let's have a brief discussion of the major points we want in the petition. Then you draw it up and I'll go home. I'll read it this evening and we can finish it off tonight or tomorrow."

Georgio agrees and they both win.

When you are in the Explainer/Teller role, you may discover that you have been forcing a conversation on a partner who is not ready for it. In this case, catch yourself, and do something about it. Let's revisit the conversation Georgio is having with Enya about the petition. Toward the beginning of the conversation Georgio picks up clues that Enya is not ready for this discussion.

He says, "Enya, this is probably not the best time for this discussion. With Ben sick I know you want to get home. We can talk about the petition later."

Enya replies, "I tell you what. Let's have a brief discussion of the major points we want in the petition. Then I'll go home and you draw it up. I'll read it this evening and we can finish it off tonight or tomorrow."

So, whether you are in the Explainer/Teller or Understander role, you can repair whatever mistakes you've been making with respect to conversational rights.

Social competence mistakes

We are not always as tactful as we might be. We read a social situation wrong. Or, reading it correctly we respond to it poorly. Repairing social competence mistakes is often crucial to maintaining a good relationship with others.

Consider the following case. Estelle is having dinner at a restaurant with Tania and Nathan, good friends who are about to be married. She notices that their relationship with each other is quite strained. But she ignores her correct reading of the situation and decides that she is going to ‘cheer them up’ with her usual humour. She ploughs on for a while, then catches herself.

She pauses a bit and says, "I'm sorry. I've been ignoring the fact that you two don't seem to be yourselves. I feel a bit stupid. What's going on? Or am I butting in?"

Tania and Nathan, given the opportunity, reveal that they've put off the wedding. The three of them then talk a few things through.

In this case, the reading was right (social intelligence), but the initial response was poor (social competence). Estelle's recovery helps them have a heavy, but useful, conversation.

d. Repairing mistakes made in the Explainer/Teller role

Since there is a range of skills in the Explainer/Teller role, many different kinds of mistakes can be made. A few of the most common mistakes are reviewed here.

Correcting failures to engage attention

Ronald is sitting with his friend, Eve, in her living room. As he shares his point of view about children in primary school getting too much homework, he notices that she looks bored. He thought that she would be interested since she also has two children in primary school. While someone else might blame Eve for ‘not being a good listener’, Ronald says to himself in his silent conversation, "She looks bored. Obviously I'm not connecting."

He goes on to notice that even though Eve's body language does not indicate interest, neither does his. He is slouched down in the easy chair, he seldom looks at her, his arms are folded across his chest, and he has been speaking without any animation in his voice. His nonverbals are ‘out of synch’ with the point of view he is trying to share.

So, he sits up straight, unfolds his arms, leans toward Eve, and begins again with some enthusiasm, "Eve, you and I both have kids in primary school. Tell me if I wrong about this homework thing because it affects your kids, as well as mine. I feel …"

And he goes on to share his point of view. This time Eve literally sits up and takes notice. He does two things to reset the conversation. He gives indications of his own enthusiasm and he brings Eve's children into the picture.

Providing missing headlines

Jason is explaining to his spouse the things he would like to get done during the coming week. Things like cleaning out the garage, putting down tiles in the basement, putting in a new fan in the attic, putting in extra electrical outlets in the family room, and so forth. He is a bit put off because he detects some annoyance in her voice as she mutters something about, "Lots of plans, but little action." Or something like that. All of a sudden, it strikes him that he has been talking about a range of possibilities rather than things that he actually intends doing.

He has failed to provide a headline. And so he says, "You must have been thinking that I'm Superman. I just realised that I've been talking about things I might do. Anyway, let me summarise the list and then we can talk about what your priorities are, and what my priorities are, so we can make some decisions."

She laughs and says, "You're right. I was saying to myself, ‘There he goes again, making promises that he will never keep.’ So, let's start making some choices."

Once he realises what he has been doing, Jason resets the conversation. The conversation would have gone better if he had started with a headline in the first place. Perhaps something like this: "Let's take a look at the whole range of things I could do this week and then we can make some decisions about what's most urgent."

Failing to provide necessary context

Too often people in the Explainer/Teller role fail to provide enough context for Understanders to get the points they are trying to communicate. Billy has been talking with Terry, his neighbour, about some problems he’s having with the building firm converting their loft.

Picking up cues that Terry is a bit lost, Bob pauses and says, "What I'm telling you is probably making very little sense. Let me back up. The builder who started the job died about a month ago. Now his son has taken over. His father and I had a number of informal understandings about the work he was to do. That's the way we've always worked. Now his son wants to see it in writing. But there is no writing."

This helps Terry understand the points Bob has been making and prepares him for a discussion about the legal standing of unwritten commitments.

Failing to fill in the picture adequately

Headlines and underlines serve little purpose if they are not followed by important points and useful detail, including examples that illustrate what we mean. Lisa has been talking to her boyfriend, Declan, about some of the problems they have been having. At one point she pauses, looks at him directly, and says,

"Do you know what bothers me the most? I feel that you are hemming me in. I just need more space."

This is a good start. Since it emerges during the course of the conversation, it's an underline. It introduces the topic she wants to discuss. But her statement is still quite general. It does capture Declan's attention, but he's not sure what she means. He counters with,

"Hemming you in? What do you mean by that?"

In answering Declan's question, that is, in filling in the picture, she engages in a lot of vague talk about ‘freedom’, and ‘not wanting to be smothered’ and the like. She does not supply the kind of detail that Declan would find useful. This merely prompts Declan to ask more questions. They are getting nowhere. Lisa, realizing that she is being too vague, says,

"When I say that I feel you're hemming me in, I mean that you always have to know just where I am, the person I'm with, and what I'm doing. Another way of hemming me in is calling me all the time and always wanting to be with me. And you tend to sulk when I mention that I've been with other guys. These are the kinds of things that are bothering me."

Once she realises that she has been hedging, Lisa moves into conversational repair. Her vagueness was just making things worse.

But there is a problem with this example. Lisa has been ‘saving up’ the main points contained in the ‘stop hemming me in’ message, probably in hopes that she would not have to deliver them. She was hoping that Declan would read her mind. Saving up messages, especially messages with significant emotional content, and then ‘dumping’ them all at once is never a good communication strategy. Both Lisa and Declan have some lessons to learn in social competence.

e. Repairing mistakes made in the Understander role

What can you do in the Understander role when you are not paying attention, your listening is poor, you fail to read clues in the Explainer/Teller, you fail to identify highlights, you either do not feed back highlights, or the ones you do feed back fail to hit the mark, you do little to encourage the Explainer/Teller's flow, you fail to get to the bottom of things, you do not work to stay on track, or you fail to pull important points together through summaries? All of these mistakes are fodder for conversational repair. Let's take a look at a few examples.

Failing to listen with an open mind

What should you do when see find yourself listening in a distorted fashion – half-heartedly, filtered through prejudices - and so forth? Take the case of Nina, a manager, who is listening to Margaret, one of her team members, making a case for some new product designs. Nina asks a couple of questions and the exchange seems to be going fairly well.

However, at one point Nina interrupts Margaret's presentation and says, "You'll have to excuse me, Margaret. I know that I seem to be listening, but I'm doing a poor job. Right from the start I decided that these design ideas wouldn't fly - too complicated, too expensive, that sort of thing. So I started to half-listen.

"I've got an idea. Let's get together with Joan and Randy. They are newer members of the team and have a different view of the market. I'd like to give your ideas an honest hearing. And maybe we all can find ways of making the designs less complicated and more cost effective."

Nina does the right thing. She not only confesses her mistake but she finds a way of correcting it.

Failing to feed back highlights

Andrea is listening to her teenage son, Damian, present his case for spending a weekend with some school friends on a farm that belongs to the uncle of one of them. Damian has been giving it his best shot, but he doesn't know where he stands because his mother has said little. He's not sure if this is a good sign or bad.

Finally, Andrea says, "Damian, you know that my instinct has been to say ‘no’ right from the start. But you've got some reasonable points. Let's start from the top again. I want to make sure that I get the whole picture. This doesn't mean that I'm saying yes. But I want to understand the whole thing … I think you began by saying that Tony's uncle would be there…"

So Damian begins presenting his case again, but this time Andrea listens carefully, feeds back key highlights, and probes for greater clarity. Feeding back highlights becomes a way of respecting Damian, forcing herself to keep an open mind, and checking her understanding.

Failing to get on the same emotional wave-length as the Explainer/Teller

Failure to express appropriately positive emotions when you are in the Understander role can also be a problem in conversations. Jack has been talking to his friend, Adele, about a breakthrough with his boss. While Adele has been listening attentively, she has in no way reflected Jack's enthusiasm. However, she does notice that he has grown less enthusiastic and has been trailing off.

She says, "You must be thinking I'm a cold fish. I've heard everything you've said, but I bet my responses have been about as encouraging as a stock-market report on a slow day. You know, I've been thinking about how many conversations we've had about your exasperation with your boss. But what you've just said seems to mean that you might be able to create a whole new relationship with him."

Adele shakes off her lethargy and gets into the spirit of the conversation.

Failing to help the Explainer/Teller fill in the picture

In good conversations, Explainer/Tellers do their best to provide essential detail and Understanders help them do it. Dialogue is a collaborative process. Good Understanders don't merely feedback the highlights; they also search for the kind of clarity and detail that helps mutual understanding.

Jacob has been talking with Lana about some of the problems with his new house. Jacob introduces the topic he wants to discuss with a headline, "I know that in a new house you notice every tiny flaw. But what I need to do is identify the flaws that the contractor is responsible for and must fix."

He then goes on to separate the flaws into two categories – the things that the contractor has to straighten out, and the things that he himself has to do because they are not part of the contract.

Lana tunes in, encourages the flow, and occasionally feeds back a highlight such as, "So the cracks in the garage wall definitely go on the list for the contractor." But she does very little to probe for greater clarity – clarity for both herself and Jacob. Relatively early in the conversation Lana catches herself and says,

"I notice that I've been saving up some observations and questions. I think that it would be more useful to share them as they come up. For instance, I'm not sure why you didn't put the noise in the heating system on the list for the contractor."

Jacob responds, "That's a good point. I guess I left it off because the heating system actually works rather well. But it shouldn't make that kind of racket. It’s annoying. On the list it goes."

Of course, Lana could just as well have started sharing her observations and asking questions, without pointing out to Jacob his failure to go into detail. But in this case, pointing it out explicitly was useful for Jacob. It allowed Lana to go back in the conversation and bring up an important point.

f. But people don't like admitting their mistakes

Someone might say: "The kind of self and social awareness required for conversational repair is not widely distributed in the population. Therefore, the kind of sensitivity required for conversational repair is at a premium. So don't expect much. Furthermore, the world is often gritty, individualistic, and competitive. You can't afford to go around putting yourself down. Conversational repair is not going to take root. Those who do it will be seen as odd."

Well, there's a lot more decency in the world than some might assume. The thesis here is that effective communication, including conversational repair, is so necessary for good relationships that even clumsy initial attempts to become more effective will be recognised and rewarded. Have you ever said something like this, "I appreciate Timothy. He's honest. If he does something wrong he admits it. Still, he's no softie." Decent communication does not make anyone a softie. Just because conversational repair is not that frequent in person-to-person communication does not mean that it's not useful. Innovation in communication is just as important as innovation in technology.

Of course, communicating effectively in the first place is better than conversational repair. Indeed, conversational repair can be overdone. Correcting every little mistake is a big mistake, in itself. Social intelligence should dictate which mistakes you should ignore, which you should recover from by merely changing your behaviour, and which mistakes you should admit and repair openly.

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