3.2 Using Headlines & Underlines To Introduce Key Points

The first step to achieving clarity is to make sure your partner understands exactly what you’re talking about. An obvious thing to say, maybe, but a huge amount of misunderstanding is caused by people leaping to the wrong conclusion. The antidote is the habit of headlining. Instead of forcing people to guess at what your topic or point is, just tell them. A simple but very powerful idea

a. The problem of talking without focus

What happens when a friend, let's say Yvonne, listens to you talk? She takes in the information and tries to make sense of it. She tries to piece your messages together. She implicitly asks: How is all of this connected? What does it all mean? In a word she processes what you’re saying.

If you send out messages that are hard to process, hard to make sense of, two things can happen. First, as Yvonne struggles to understand what you mean, she concentrates on what you were saying, not on what you're saying now. So she gets lost. Second, when it all becomes too much effort, she may give up and let her attention drift elsewhere. Or she changes the topic.

Good communicators do what they can to make their meaning clear. In this section we introduce two simple ways of making what you say easier for the other person to listen to and absorb — using headlines and underlines.

b. Using headlines to introduce clarity

In the Explainer/Teller role, the sooner you can introduce clarity into the conversation the better. It helps the Understander to focus on what you want to get across.

First, if you have a clear idea of what your story is about, what your message is, what your point of view is, or what case you’re trying to make, provide the person in the Understander role with a ‘headline’, a brief statement indicating the central scenario, issue, topic, or theme you want to discuss.

Newspapers rely on headlines to tell the reader what the story that follows is all about. You can do the same. In conversations headlines provide focus. They help you when you’re in the Explainer/Teller role to organise what you want to say. They provide Understanders with ‘hooks’ on which they can they can hang the points you’re making. In the following example, Morton is talking to his wife, Sandra, about their son's progress in school.

He says, "Remember what William's teacher said about his artistic potential last year? We didn't pay much attention to it. But the fact that he's won the school prize for a drawing he's done is a wake-up call for us. We need to talk seriously about his artistic talent and its implications for school, home, and beyond."

They go on to have a discussion about their son's talent, their reactions to it, and how they should plan for the future. The discussion is a development of Morton's headline.

If you know what your main topic, issue, or theme is together with the reason for the conversation, say it up-front. That way, you'll give the other person a good idea of how to make sense of what follows. A headline helps in the same way that the picture on a jigsaw box helps someone fit the puzzle together.

Contrast the following two approaches. The conversation is between Nelson and Craig. They are friendly neighbours with kids in the same high school. They are both convinced that schools can benefit enormously from intelligent participation on the part of parents.

At one juncture Nelson says, "I know one school where they have an advisory board composed of parents. Maybe just being involved in the school is the most important thing. We have to remember that we are not managing the school. The teaching staff has responsibility for that. But there are all sorts of things we can do. We shouldn't interfere with things that are going well, but we could present ideas for new initiatives."

It’s very difficult to determine what Nelson's main topic is. Either there is no headline or there are too many.

Craig listens carefully, then says, "What you're saying makes one thing clear to me: Individual parents or parent groups need to define their role in the school carefully if they are going to add value and not just interfere. Both the school and the parents need to develop this role together.”

Nelson responds by saying, "Yes, that's it." Craig picks a theme he sees running through Nelson's somewhat disjointed remarks and turns it into a headline. He then begins to organise both his own thoughts and what Nelson has said around the headline.

Of course, you're more likely to include headlines if you've thought ahead about what your main topic is. Especially if the topic is a serious one. In the following example, Elsa, the director of nursing is talking to Laurence, a senior nurse who has chaired a task force dealing with a new plan for patient care.

In talking about the plan the task force has submitted, Elsa says, "Laurence, I'd like to give you my reaction to your plan. Today, I'd like to review the section dealing with intensive care. There are some excellent suggestions in here. I also have a couple of concerns we should discuss. Let's start by reviewing what I see as the best features of the plan."

Having read the plan carefully, the director of nursing formulates a headline that gives direction to the conversation. They go on to have a dialogue about the revision of nursing practices in the intensive-care unit. Elsa points out what she sees as value-added changes in intensive-care practices. She also discusses her reservations about a couple of the changes outlined in the plan.

In the following example, a teenager is discussing the rules his parents have laid down about evening activities.

He says, "Mum, I know you're worried about me staying out late, but I have a plan which I think you'll appreciate. It has two simple parts. First of all …"

This gives his mother a clear steer on what the focus of the conversation is going to be. She may be sceptical, but she is more likely to listen with a positive frame of mind.

Headlines help provide focus and clarity in all modes of discourse. Here are some examples of using headlines in four different areas.

Using headlines to introduce stories

Headlines can be used in telling stories.

Jay is talking with a friend about his fear of travel. "I used to love to travel, but not so much any more. I think I can best explain the things that bother me by telling you what happened when I was in Korea last year. We were coming in to land at

Seoul …"

Now his friend knows that there is to be a story about Korea and that this story will help explain Jay's fear of travel.

Using headlines to introduce messages

Headlines help give focus to messages. Lillian is talking with her husband, Larry, about her struggle with cancer.

She begins by saying, "Larry, I've decided not to have the next round of chemotherapy treatments. We both know they're no cure. It's just postponing the inevitable. I'm not going to subject myself to more misery."

Lillian starts with a strong headline message. She follows up with a few reasons for her decision. She and Larry go on to have a discussion about her decision.

Using headlines to introduce points of view

Headlining is also useful when you want to share a point of view. There is often some core statement, or idea, that you'd like to get across when you share your point of view. This core idea, or issue, becomes the headline.

Consider Mia. With three children in the local primary school, she has a point of view on what her children should get from school.

Talking with the assistant principal of the school, she says, "I see myself as being as modern as the next parent. And I think that I am quite flexible with my children. But some of the trends in society and education bother me. Here's my point. I think that self-discipline is very important. And I think that both the home and the school should play a key role in helping children develop self-discipline. I'd like to share my ideas about self-discipline and get a better idea of this school's philosophy in this area.”

Through dialogue they go on to get a better feel for what Mia means by self-discipline and to explore the school's approach to it.

Using headlines when making a case

Finally, headlines can contribute greatly to whatever case you’re trying to make. Toby and Clarissa have been discussing redecorating their home. Like many other families, they are working with a limited budget. Toby would like to make some improvements in the kitchen - he loves cooking - while Clarissa wants to re-furbish one room as a home-office.

At one point in the conversation she says, "It's clear that we can't do both projects this year. So I'd like to run through the benefits all of us - you, me, and the kids - would get from a home-office. I'd like to include a couple of benefits that have just occurred to me this week. First I think that both you and I need peace and quiet when we're catching up on work …"

She goes on to make her case. She and Toby have some very good, if at times heated, give-and-take dialogue on the relevance and importance of each benefit.

Use as many headlines as you need during a conversation. For instance, if you have three issues you want to talk about, use a headline to name all three up front. Then use a headline to introduce each as you move forward.

Nellie, in talking to her husband, Dan, says, "Now that we have a few minutes there are some things I think we need to discuss. There are the summer plans for the kids. There's the possibility of your mother going into a nursing home. And then there's the refrigerator. The refrigerator shouldn't take too much time. It's on its last legs. I think we should bite the bullet and get a new one. And here's why …"

Three topics and then the first headline. Use headlines whenever they are needed, but don't overdo it. If you use too many, you're making everything seem important. And if everything is important, then, in a crowded field, nothing is important.

c. Using headlines to introduce transitions in a conversation

When you move from one topic to another, headlines clarify the transition. For instance, Callum has been talking with Lucinda about some issues in their relationship. They have had a good discussion on how different their interests are outside the home and the kind of compromises that make sense. Lucinda adores ballet; for Callum, it's ‘all right’. He prefers musicals. They agree on the kind of entertainment mix that would suit them both.

As this part of the discussion heads for a natural close, Callum says something like this: "Well, it seems that we can work out some reasonable compromises when it comes to leisure-time activities. But one area of life is a bit more sensitive. I think that we can say that we're both religious. But we seem to be religious in quite different ways. And the ways we express whatever religious convictions and feelings we have seem to be quite different."

Callum uses a headline to move carefully into what could be a sensitive area. Lucinda says that she was wondering when the issue of religion would come up. They then go on to have a good discussion about what religion means to each and their differences in religious expression. While they look for ways of expressing their religious sentiments together, they also agree that ,at times, each will have to go his or her own way.

In general, be careful how you move a conversation in a different direction. When, as Explainer/Teller, you want to move the conversation in a different direction, pay attention to the mindset of your conversational partner. It’s often necessary to re-engage his, or her, attention and to indicate a good reason for moving in another direction. Otherwise your conversational partners might be put off because they don't know where you're headed.

In the following example four grown brothers have come together to celebrate the oldest's birthday. They are having a good time. During a slight lull in an otherwise boisterous conversation, the youngest says, "I don't want to put a damper on things here. It's so great getting together. But I have a couple of concerns about mum. We're together so infrequently, this seems an ideal time to talk a few things through."

He realises that this is not the perfect time for such a discussion, but it might be the best time available.

d. Including emotions in your headlines

Oban is talking with Yassir about a meeting he has just had with his brother-in-law.

Not long into the conversation he says, "The more I think about, the more I see that my brother-in-law was intimating that I'm not a good father. And the more I think about it, the angrier I become."

Oman’s growing anger is an important part of the headline and he does well not to leave it out.

Sometimes if you fail to include a description what's going on inside you - your mental states or feelings - you’re leaving out a key factor, one often intimately related to your behaviour. You can't expect people to be mind readers. If Oban, at that moment, neither expressed anger, nor said anything about it, Yassir might have thought that he couldn’t care less about what his brother-in-law thought.

e. Admitting if you don't have a headline

If what you want to say is not that clear to you, you may not be able to offer a headline.

Todd says to a friend, "Something's going on between me and Kate, but I can't put my finger on it. So I might ramble on a bit here so try to sort it out."

Actually the topic is ‘unidentified problems in a relationship’. But this is so broad that Todd rightfully indicates that he's on a search mission. You can help him with the search.

f. Using underlines to highlight key ideas, topics and issues that emerge

Underlining is the second way of highlighting your topics, issues, or themes for your conversational partners. There are many times in conversations when the main issue you're trying to focus on becomes clear only as you go along. As you talk, suddenly, the light goes on. So, rather than keeping this big thought to yourself, say it out loud, as if you’re underlining, or highlighting, a key sentence in a text book. An underline is a species of headline because it introduces a topic of issue that becomes the focus of the dialogue.

Let's say that you've been talking to your friend Kenneth about the UN's role in dealing with ‘hot spots’ around the world.

At one point Kenneth says, “Now that I think of it, maybe that's what's bothering me. What is it that makes a conflict a ‘hot spot’? Who defines it? Whose job is it to see one developing and head it off? I'd like to get some clarity on questions like these.”

For Kenneth, getting clarity on ‘hot spots’ is a key issue. Once it emerges through the give-and-take of the conversation, he underlines it. An underline is a headline that becomes clear only as the conversation progresses.

Nicholas and his brother, Jonathan, start talking about their success in their respective careers. The conversation includes a discussion on the importance of making money. Ideas fly back and forth.

Then, in the middle of this discussion, Nicholas says, "You know what strikes me as we talk? Making money is important to me mainly as a scorecard. It’s one indicator that I'm doing well, that I'm smart, that I'm using my talents."

He and his brother go on to explore this perspective. Later, Jonathan, musing on what Nicholas said, goes on to explore his own motivation.

Here are a couple more examples of underlining. In the following example, Timothy has been talking to his wife, Anna, about a long-weekend getaway they have been planning. He is obviously fumbling a bit.

Then the light goes on and he says, "Now I think I know what's bothering me. I am looking forward to the trip. I'm very much looking forward to it. Though you've probably been wondering whether I wanted to go at all. But I'm still worried, even feeling guilty, about the cost. That's where my hesitation comes from."

Timothy goes to explain his point of view and to discuss how rational or irrational his ‘guilt feelings’ are. Anna, too, has her point of view. She explains her desire to balance the financial and social sides of their lifestyle. Their discussion is lively.

In the second example, Hilary is talking somewhat vaguely to her friend, Evelyn, about her teenage son's social life.

Again, the light goes on. She brings her thoughts to the foreground. "Now that we've been talking about this for a while, Evelyn, it's beginning to dawn on me that what's troubling me most is John's choice of friends. He seems to choose boys that dominate him in one way or another."

Hilary's naming and underlining this issue helps both of them give more focus to the conversation. Therefore, when you discover a thought, or theme, that helps pull some of the threads of the conversation together and give it direction, underline it. The problem of talking without focus.

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