4.6 Using Constructive Rather Than i'll-Conceived Responses

There are many different ways to respond to what someone has said to you. Some responses help you to do your job well in the Understander role — that is, they help you to understand what the other person is wishing to communicate, at the same time as encouraging him, or her, to talk freely. Other responses, however, do the opposite. They get in the way of the dialogue developing. For example, when we give people instant advice or we trivialise their feelings, these responses can only help destroy dialogue, not build it.

a. Counter-productive responses are everywhere

Imagine you go to see a doctor. You begin to tell her about your situation. You'd like her to listen carefully to your story and to encourage you to talk fully and openly about your symptoms before giving you advice on a recommended treatment. But instead, she responds in one of the following ways:

She immediately writes out a prescription before you've had the chance to explain your situation.

She tells you off for being ill — for not taking care of yourself in the first place.

She dismisses your illness as trivial, even before you get out what you believe to be the main symptoms.

She offers you some pills she's taking herself.

She starts to talk about the state of her own health.

Such a scene might take place in a dark comedy, not in real life. If you were to experience a situation like this, you would probably feel outraged and quickly change doctors and then report her to the appropriate regulatory board.

From a communication point of view, none of the doctor's responses contribute to the creation of understanding. They all take the conversation off-course. Each undermines the communication process in its own way.

Yet many of us do similar things in our day-to-day conversations, even though we may not be aware of it. It's easy to sabotage a conversation with an inappropriate response. Remember, the job of the communicator, when in the Understander role, is first to learn what the world looks like from the other person's perspective. Responses, which divert the conversation from this essential goal, are not helpful.

When it comes to inappropriate responses, we're all familiar with the ‘usual suspects’ because we have been victims of them and, unfortunately, perpetrators, too.

Have you ever responded with unwanted advice? Have you ever responded judgementally? Of course you have. We all have.

But if you reflect and give yourself time to think, you can prevent any of the following ill-conceived responses by coming up with a constructive one, that is, one that achieves the goal but in a much more dialogue-friendly way.

b. Avoid giving advice, but do help others find their own answers

Some people are into giving instant advice. For instance, Taylor, after listening for a couple of minutes to Alistair talk about problems he's having with Cassandra, says, "Drop her! She's obviously trying to take over your life." But can you give useful advice without knowing the full story? Build your understanding before even thinking about offering advice.

All of us, at one time or another, fall into the trap of giving unwanted advice. Does Taylor really want Alistair's advice at all? Perhaps all he wants to do is share his thinking. If Alistair had acted as a sounding board, Taylor may well have come up with his own solution, which is preferable.

Some people begin advice-giving with the words, "If I were you." "If I were you, I'd put her in her place." However, you are not the other person, and what works for you could be entirely wrong for them. You don't go for an eye test and expect the optician to give you his own glasses.

Instead of giving advice, then, help others find their own answers. It would be far different if, instead of saying, "If I were you," you were to say something like this to the person talking about a problem; "I've been musing to myself what I might do in a similar situation. But what I'd do might not make any sense for you." This gives the other person an opening. If your partner says, "Well, what might you do if you had to face this?" then you can offer ideas for what they're worth.

Of course, some people ask for your advice: "What should I do?" Be cautious even then. One way of handling such requests is to become a kind of informal ‘consultant’ to the person with the problem. In the following example, Cain, at the end of a story about how he has botched his relationship with his brother, looks at you and says, "What should I do?"

You reply, "Well, nothing like this has ever happened to me, so I'm not sure if I have any answers. But maybe we could take a look at some options you have."

You go on to help him identify a range of things he might do. This puts the responsibility for problem solving where it belongs - with Cain. Of course, once he identifies a number of options, he might look at you once more and ask, "Which one should I choose?" Again, you provide some help but still leave the decision to him.

For instance, you might say, "Well, before choosing, it might help to take a look at the possible consequences of each line of action. Sometimes the right choice pops out at you as you do this."

You go on to help him review the consequences of each option. But the responsibility is still on his shoulders.

c. Withhold judgment, but do help others face up to themselves

Too often, without realising it, our responses come across to our conversational partners as judgmental. This happens especially if we have been listening from a ‘right-wrong’, rather than from an open-minded perspective. We can be judgmental in both direct and indirect ways.

Responses that attack, or criticise, the other person as an individual, are direct judgments. They almost always have a negative effect. "Come on, Taylor, you're just too soft on your kids. You know it." And Taylor says, "I bet you parents were soft on you." Which gets them nowhere.

Therefore, it might be better to help Taylor face up to himself by saying something like this: "Taylor, you've said that you want to raise your kids ‘responsibly’. I suppose that means both providing resources and making demands. What do you think that the right mix for you and your kids would look like? I mean in everyday life."

Some judgmental responses are indirect. Questions are often judgments in disguise, as these examples show. "Why did you do that?" often means, "I don't think that was the right thing to do." "Were you actually surprised?" often means, "Surely you must have seen it coming." "Do you think you should have done that?" often means, "What a stupid thing to do."

Instead of, "Surely you must have seen it coming," you might say, "So you got blindsided by a very slick salesman… I've been wondering. If you had to do it over, what might you have done differently? I'm asking because I think that both of us could learn something from this."

Some judgmental questions look innocent on the printed page, but in practice they are often asked with nonverbal ‘modifiers’ that make their real meaning, their judgmental meaning, quite clear. Often it’s the tone of voice. "Why did you do that?" is asked with an I'm-better-than-you tone of voice that turns it into outright, and not very useful, criticism.

On the other hand, withholding judgment is not the same as approving. Nor does it mean that we cannot help others face up to reality. Carey has been listening to Eddie talking about a failed business venture. This is not Eddie's first failure. Carey has listened carefully and fed back a few highlights.

At one point in the conversation, he remarks, "I think that you and I have different philosophies, or approaches, to being an entrepreneur. I'm a detail person. Maybe too much so. I ask myself all sorts of questions. Who are the competitors? Is the economy giving me the right signals? What are the pitfalls? And so on. For you it seems to be the excitement of the idea. Pulling it off. The bigger picture. Maybe we should both be thrown into a mixing machine to get the right balance."

Carey avoids belittling Eddie. He also points out that he doesn't have all the answers. But his approach is infinitely more likely to lead to a productive dialogue than some throw-away line such as, "Oh, Eddie, that was stupid. When are you going to learn?"

d. Don't dismiss other people's ideas and concerns, but do share your own convictions

As we have seen, there is often something quite personal about messages, points of view and cases. Let's say you have a friend who’snot as tidy as you, and who loves to smoke.

While riding with you one day, he says, "You make a big deal about keeping the car clean. And a little smoke isn't going to hurt it. You know, a car's just a means of getting from here to there, you know. Lighten up."

How would you feel? Dismissing your values and your preferred practices is like dismissing you as a person.

If Harry says to William, who has been stewing over not getting a part in a play at a local playhouse, "Forget it! You must have more important things to complain about," he is dismissing both the problem and its owner. If Harry had been an effective Understander, he would have identified and fed back some of William's highlights. Then he might have said, "Since I'm not an actor and you are, I'd like to know what it means to you to get a part in a play." In this approach, Harry focuses on something positive, what it means for his friend to get a part in a play. Then he might understand what it means to be rejected for a part.

The opposite of being dismissive is being a patsy, swallowing everything the Explainer/Teller says hook, line, and sinker. That's not the road to dialogue either. Let's say that Arden is, politically, extremely conservative (or extremely liberal). Theo, on the other hand, sees himself as an independent or a moderate. He likes to look at the world in a principled way, certainly, but issue by issue. Arden is talking heatedly about proposed gun-control legislation, which she sees as a violation of the constitution.

Theo A, at his wits end, says, "Arden, people like you are probably the best thing that has ever come along for the gun-control lobby. Your extreme position is so ridiculous that it's easy to, may I use the expression, shoot it down."

This is one approach - the dismissive one.

Theo B goes to the other end of the communication continuum and says, "I suppose you've got a point, Arden. It's hard to talk against the constitution. After all, where would we all be without it? And you certainly make your points forcefully."

You may well say, "Ugh" to the patsy approach, seeing it as a peace-at-any-price surrender, and you are probably right. The problem is, that being dismissive and being a patsy, are different sides of the same coin. What is needed is a new coin. There are more constructive options.

Theo C takes Arden seriously and explores her position with her, point by point. As he does this, he thinks he notices Arden retreating a bit from some extreme positions. He goes on to share his own point of view, even though it differs. This is tough going and at times he uses the, "looks like we'll have to agree to disagree on this point" approach.

What is being suggested here is that when you disagree with what your conversational partner is saying, you can find ways of staying in the conversation that honour the principles of effective dialogue. You can ask your partner to explore a decision that he is about to implement more thoroughly. You can challenge the case a colleague is putting forth and offer alternatives. Approaches like these are neither dismissive, nor are they patsy behaviour.

e. Don't hijack conversations, but do get your own needs met

Another response to avoid is the ‘hijack’. It's very common in everyday conversations. Sometimes it goes unnoticed, while at other times it’s highly irritating. Here's how it looks from the Explainer/Teller's angle. You're in the middle of telling a story, or delivering a message, or making a point, when the other person picks up on something you've said - word, phrase, concept, sentence - and uses it, instantly, to take over the conversation. The hijacker's message is, "Ah, here's something that interests me." In the following example Johnny has started to talk with Jesse about his financial troubles.

Johnny says, "I don't know how I got into this kind of debt. I was astonished when a store ran my card and gave it right back to me because I was over my limit. Then in Denver …"

Jesse interrupts and says, "Denver! That's just about my favourite city. Why, Jenny and I were there just last month."

Some hijacks are deliberate, but most are done unconsciously, often as a result of either self-centred, or half-hearted, listening.

If you decide that you have to hijack a conversation for some good reason - for example, you may think of something important that can't wait to be said -take responsibility for putting the conversation back on track. Nadine has been talking with Josephine about a trip that she has returned from.

Josephine interrupts and says, "Excuse me, listening to you talk about your trip made me remember that I forgot to make plane reservations for next week. Let me jot down a reminder for myself … [She does so.] … Okay. Now, you were talking about how helpful the flight attendant was when …"

This is just common courtesy. Most of us hijack conversations much more than we realise. See if you can catch yourself, and others, doing so. If a conversation is more or less a fun free-for-all, hijacking makes little difference. At other times, it undermines or destroys the conversational climate. The message is, "What you're saying is not that important."

On the other hand, you have every right to get your own needs met. As we have seen, ‘interrupting’ in order to promote dialogue, is actually helpful. Unless one person's needs are so great that they temporarily outweigh those of the other, dialogue means more than "you-speak-then-I speak." Both parties should be concerned that their mutual needs are met.

Amis is talking with Mona about a problem with his employer that has degenerated into a law-suit. Mona plays the Understander role well, feeding back highlights and asking good questions.

But when it becomes clear to her that Amis is quite content to fill the time talking about his own issues, Mona says, "Well, I guess we're not going to solve all of this today. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about what my doctor told me yesterday after my physical. It will probably affect our plans a little."

This is not a hijack. Rather it’s an exercise of conversational rights.

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