4.5 Working To Get The Full Picture

In some conversations, Explainer/Tellers needs little help, just the occasional question to move things along. They express themselves freely. They tell you what you need to know. Conversations like that are, perhaps, the exception. More commonly, people in the Explainer/Teller role need support and stimulation if they are to make themselves fully clear. The skill here is to respond to Explainer/Tellers in ways that encourage them to express themselves well. Asking questions is only part of it.

Even when communicators are skilled in the Explainer/Teller role, the ‘product’, that is, the communication of the story, message, point of view, or case, is inevitably better when both Explainer/Teller and Understander become partners to make it happen.

There are two things you can do when you are in the Understander role to help Explainer/Tellers deliver the full picture in a clear and interesting way. picture. First, you can ‘encourage the flow’, that is, you can do things to encourage the Explainer/Teller to move forward. Second, you can probe for greater clarity and detail.

a. Encouraging the flow

Some Explainer/Tellers do better when they are actively encouraged, especially at the beginning of a conversation or at difficult points during a conversation. There are a number of ways you can do this.

Responding with interest

Like new-born babies, some conversations are at their most vulnerable during the first few moments of life. So make sure your first responses are encouraging. For example, you might say such things as: "That sounds important to you," or, "I'd like to know about more about this." Whatever is natural to you. Your nonverbal behaviour will also tell the other person a great deal about your interest - or lack of it. Ideally, your expressions of interest, both verbal and nonverbal, will complement the Explainer/Teller's efforts to engage your attention. You become a team.

Don't assume that your conversational partners will automatically know you are interested in them. If you don't make your interest clear through body language and words, they may well decide that you are closed to communication - especially if they are feeling insecure about the conversation in the first place.

Using prompts

Drop in a few remarks that demonstrate you're listening and are involved. Interjections such as "uh-huh," or, "I see," and the like, act as encouragements - provided that they are not misplaced or merely routine. Of course, sharing highlights is a good way of encouraging the Explainer/Teller. But you don't have to give out whole chunks of highlights all the time. Rather, feed back smaller segments of a highlight to nudge the dialogue along. For instance, if someone is telling you how he has been ‘knifed in the back’ by a boss whom he trusted, interjecting words like, "And this is the guy who was going to ‘help’ you," encourages the flow. When done well - and not overdone - these prompts help the Explainer/Teller develop the story, message, point of view, or case, more fully.

Giving the Explainer/Teller room.

Don't feel compelled to fill in all the conversational spaces. Sometimes it's a good idea to give the other person time to gather his, or her, thoughts. Recall what was said earlier about the spirit of inquiry and reflection. You are leaving room, not just for the Explainer/Teller, but for yourself. The Explainer/Teller pulls his or her thoughts together. You give yourself time to reflect. Staying silent for a few moments may be all that's needed at times, provided you've demonstrated your initial interest. But don't overdo it. If the silence drags on, the Explainer/Teller might feel like he, or she, is on the spot. Then verbal encouragements should be used.

In the following example, an eleven-year-old boy is talking, in a halting way, to his father about how he let his team-mates down in a game. His father gives him plenty of room. But at one point the boy stops dead. His father gives him a tad more space then says, "It's not easy to talk about stuff like this."

The boy snaps back, "I hate talking like this. I feel so dumb."

The father replies, "Well then, let's see what can be done to make you smart. I bet there are a lot of things you can do to get back on track."

The boy relaxes a bit, "Like what?"

His father goes on, "How many of the guys on the team have been sitting around since the game thinking about what you did wrong? I know you have, but what about them?"

The boy laughs, "They've got better things to do!"

And his father says, "Then, that's probably part of the solution."

They go on to discuss how short people's memories are in cases like this. They talk things through in a problem-solving rather than self-blame mode.

b. Working to get the full picture

As you build your understanding of what the other person is saying, there will be times when you realise that you need more information to fill in the picture, clarify the message, explore the point of view, or puzzle through the case. This does not necessarily mean that the person in the Explainer/Teller role is doing a poor job. It does mean that you are taking responsibility for your own understanding, no matter what kind of job the Explainer/Teller is doing.

The technical word for getting the Explainer/Teller to provide you with more information is ‘probing’. The problem with that word is that to some it sounds like what you might do with an instrument you'd find in a doctor's, or dentist's, office. For some, probing is something that is done to them rather than something they do with them. That said, let's translate the term into practical things to do.

The first step in getting the full picture is to work out what it is you want to know but don't know. Go for the most important missing pieces rather than smaller details. Going after detail for the sake of detail might be useful in a research project, but your conversational partners are not research projects.

Understanding stories

If the Explainer/Teller's story is not clear to you, ask yourself questions based on the SAME framework outlined earlier. Here are some questions you can ask yourself in order to determine what would be useful to ask about. Of course, no one should routinely and rigidly go through these sets of questions. That would make communication a horror. Consider the follow scenario. A friend of yours is talking about a very painful break-up with her boyfriend.

You might not understand the background, that is, the situation or context, well enough. You ask yourself questions such as, "What was the relationship like in general? Were there expectations of marriage on either side?"

You might not be clear about what the Explainer/Teller's actions, what she did or did not do. "What did she do when she began to suspect that the relationship was not going right? Was there anything in her behaviour that might have put him off him?"

You might not know much about the Explainer/Teller's feelings, emotions, and other mental states. "Was the relationship usually on a steady course or was it an emotional roller coaster? How did she take it when she got the letter? What has her emotional life been since? What was the emotional tone of the relationship?"

You might feel that you don't know enough about the actions of the other players in the drama. You're not sure what happened to the Explainer/Teller. Then questions like this come to mind. "What was his behaviour like before the break-up? Did he just cut off his relationship with her or was there another woman involved? What in his behaviour put her off? What part did other people, such as friends or relatives, play?"

In order to understand you might need to know what is connected to what in the story. "How did his getting a new job relate to the break-up? What impact did her reactions to his becoming more distant have on him?"

Not that you would ask either yourself or the Explainer/Teller all these questions. Rather, once you realise what key elements of the story are missing, you can take steps to find out what they are. "When you found out that he was going out with other women, how did you react?"

Understanding messages

If you are having a hard time understanding a message because you missed the context, then getting the context is a goal.

In discussing an upcoming school event with its organiser, the building superintendent says, "I know you want me to get the hall in shape for the parents' meeting. But it would help me to know what kind of meeting it will be. Then I can make sure that the ‘look’ of the hall fits the purpose of the meeting."

If the Explainer/Teller's message is not clear, ask yourself questions based on the MRI framework. In the following example, Andy is trying to get information he needs to understand more clearly his supervisor's e-mail message about a new project. He asks himself questions like the following, in order to prepare for a conversation with his boss:

If he doesn't know enough about the situation or background to understand the message, he might wonder, "How does this project fit into our overall work programme?"

If the supervisor's message is itself unclear, he might ask himself, "Is he implying that I am the one who should write the report? Or does he want me to make sure that it gets written on time, no matter who writes it?"

It might help Andy to know the reasons behind the message. "Why do we have to get the report in so quickly? What role does it play in the project? What factors might suggest that the report is not as urgent as it’s said to be? To what degree are some of the reasons given opinion rather than fact?"

Andy might need to know key implications for himself, for his supervisor, and for other team members. "Does this mean I should postpone the visit to the World Services Corporation until the report is finished?"

Is the message cast in stone or is there some room to manoeuvre? "What kind of flexibility is there with respect to the content of the message? How fixed are the deadlines?"

Once Andy realises what he needs in order to understand the message more fully, he can ask his supervisor for clarification. Finally, asking oneself questions like those outlined above and asking one's conversational partner, are two different things. The wording of some of the above questions might not be right for the Andy's actual dialogue with his supervisor.

Understanding points of view

If the Explainer/Teller's point of view is not entirely clear to you, then you can ask yourself a number of things. In the following example, Mary is sharing her views about vegetarian diets with Marshall, her cousin. As Marshall listens actively, he might ask himself questions like these: Note that these questions are based on the PRE framework for sharing points of view.

What background information would help me understand the point of view being shared? "I wonder what led up to her becoming a vegetarian? She ate meat with us the last time the family came over for dinner. But that was more than a year ago. I am curious about what has happened since."

What is the core of this person's point of view? "I know she's a vegetarian, but to what degree is she implying that this approach to nutrition is for everyone?"

What are the reasons the person gives for this particular point of view? "Why does she insist that the only true vegetarian is a vegan? To what degree is this a health issue or is there some kind of almost religious, or ‘cause’, slant to what she is saying?"

What kind of examples or evidence might clarify the background, the point of view itself, or the reasons? "What benefits has she experienced from becoming a vegetarian? How does this point of view affect her social life?"

Once more, the spirit in which these questions are asked is important. They are meant for understanding, not interrogation.

Understanding cases

If the Explainer/Teller's case lacks clarity or focus, ask yourself what is missing. Let's say that your neighbour is making a case for putting up an eight-foot, redwood fence between his property and yours in place of the existing five-foot high, chain-link fence. He says he wants to do this for mutual privacy reasons and for some garden projects he has in mind. You ask yourself the following questions based on the CRITIC framework.

Are their background factors that would help me understand the case better? "I wonder whether this has anything to do with the fact that I voted with the board when they denied his request to widen his driveway last year? Or is this really about privacy - his and mine?"

What is the Explainer/Teller's credibility like? "What is his track record in designing changes to the outside of his house? How well have the changes he made turned out? How do they look?"

How clear is the case itself? How well does it hang together? "What are the ‘garden projects’ he is talking about? How is the fence involved with these projects?"

What reasons does he give for the project? "The privacy question aside, what kind of garden project requires a fence that high?"

How well does he focus on my interests and the interests of the neighbourhood? "How well has he thought through such issues as light and a sense of openness in the backyard? How does such a fence fit into the character of this neighbourhood? I wonder whether he can show us examples of places where the project he contemplates has been done?"

What about the time frame being suggested? "Is he giving us sufficient time to think this through? Will more time help mature the project in his own mind?"

What will the Explainer/Teller get out of this? "What is his overall plan for his house and garden? What are the real benefits for him? How well has he thought this through?"

How open is he to compromise? "How willing is he to consider a lower fence? What about a lattice fence instead of one that is solid wood? To what degree has he already made up his mind on issues like this?"

Remember that these are possible questions you can ask yourself about the case someone is presenting. There might be a problem with the ‘sound’ of this particular set of questions - too much like a lawyer preparing a case for a plaintiff. But if the actual conversation between the two neighbours is carried out in the spirit of respect, it will not have the feel of a lawyer's office or courtroom. To be realistic, however, the fact that the fence-builder was denied permission to widen his driveway might possibly give a somewhat contentious cast to the questions.

c. Being careful of disagreement or agreement

One very important issue: If you sense early on that you don't agree with the Explainer/Teller's message, point of view, or case, it’s important to work even harder to fill in the picture. The fact that you don't agree can distort what you hear. However, working hard in the Understander role is not, as we have indicated earlier, the same as agreeing with the other person, or overlooking issues that are important for you. Were you to do so, you would be overlooking our own rights.

A second important issue: If you sense early on that you agree with the other person's message, point of view, or case, it’s still important to work hard to fill in the picture accurately. The fact that you hear one or two points that you agree with does not mean that your thinking and the Explainer/Teller's thinking are exactly the same. Listen for nuances that indicate that you and the Explainer/Teller might not be in total agreement. You may even find that you don't really agree at all.

d. Questions: a double edged sword

Once you know what information or clarification you need, then you can ask intelligent questions. Asking questions is easy, but asking intelligent questions is a tricky business. Make questions serve the dialogue, not your desire to have more and more information.

Avoiding closed questions (except when they are exactly what’s needed)

Questions that can be answered by a simple "yes" or "no" are called closed questions. "Is he going to stick to his promises?" "Is that what you want?" "Does that mean that you're not going to come?" The problem with closed questions is that they tend to close the conversation down rather than open it up.

Serena and Rudy, a neighbour, have been talking about Serena's struggle to get the contractor to redo some shoddy work in her home. Serena mentions that she has asked the contractor for certain kinds of information. Rudy asks, "Did he respond to your request?" and Serena replies, "Not really." That didn't get us very far, did it? "You mean you didn't get what you needed?" "That's right." That doesn't get us much further either.

The problem with closed questions is that they tend to generate more closed questions. And too many questions in a row - even good ones - can make the conversation feel like an interrogation or even an attack rather than a dialogue. Serena feels that Rudy is accusing her of being incompetent. Peppering Explainer/Tellers with questions is tiresome for both parties. It's as if the person in the Understander role has to extort information from the Explainer/Teller.

There are times when only a closed question will do — for instance, when you require absolute clarity on an issue. When you need to nail things down. Joe has been discussing family finances with his sister Claire.

At one point, he says. “I’m confused. Did Mum receive the cheque or not? I need to be clear on this.”

Favouring open questions

Open questions, on the other hand, cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." "What's the likelihood that he will stick to his promises?" "How do you think you can repair the damage?" Such questions tend to open the conversation up. Back to Serena and Rudy.

Here's what the above drama might have looked like had Rudy asked an ‘open-ended’ question like this, "How did the contractor respond to your request?"

Serena replies, "Well, in a rather strange way. He quickly sent me lots of documents, but not the pertinent ones. Not the ones I had asked for. So he seemed to be responding enthusiastically to my request, but I have a suspicion that he was stonewalling me."

Open-ended questions leave the responsibility for elaboration with the Explainer/Teller. That's where it belongs.

e. Using indirect questions as a more dialogic alternative

Here are some ways you can ask for information without using direct questions. Indirect questions tend to emphasise your desire to understand rather than an impersonal need for data. They are less ‘interrogatory’.

Requesting information

A simple request is an alternate to a question. Explain what it is you want to know and, if it’s important, why you want to know it.

"Cray, I need some background. It's not clear to me what led up to such a violent argument? I thought they got along well."

"June, I can see why Sally was angry with Timothy, but tell me why David was so upset. He wasn't directly involved at all."

Asking for elaboration

Ask the other person to build on what they've already said.

"Tom, you said that you were very interested in doing some volunteer work, but I don't think you've told me what possibilities you've been considering."

"Julie, your new assignment sounds exciting. Tell me more about it."

You can put some of yourself in the request to show you are interested and involved.

"So, tell me more about the other teachers' reactions to your plan, at the faculty meeting. So far, their reactions don't sound anything like mine."

Making reasonable requests for information, or clarity, furthers mutual understanding.

Stressing your need for clarity

Instead of direct questions, use phrases that emphasise your own lack of clarity.

"You said John sometimes behaves in an irresponsible way. I'm not sure what you mean by ‘sometimes …"

"It's not clear to me why you think that firing him is the best solution to the problem."

Very often, the lack of clarity comes from not understanding connections or linkages.

"I don't know what he did to get such a violent reaction from you."

"I'm wondering what the implications of the new plan are for me."

If someone's story, message, point of view, or case is murky, work hard to get clarity. Encourage people to give the kind of detail that makes the picture, message, point of view, or case, concrete and specific. If you are puzzled, say so and ask for clarification.

Many people, when in the Understander role, ask the Explainer/Teller lots of questions in order to get more and more information. "Who, what, where, when, how, and why," spill out with ease. Often with too much ease. Such people mistake the search for information with a search for clarity and meaning. Once they get the information, they don't know what to do with it. Remember that you are looking for core elements, highlights, the important things. You are not seeking evidence for the courtroom. To sum up: don't ask questions unless they add value to the conversation.

f. A checklist for questions

Here is a brief checklist that can help you make requests and ask both direct, and indirect, questions wisely.

Make sure that your questions demonstrate, at least implicitly, that you have been listening to, and have understood, what the Explainer/Teller has been saying. "If he is as uncaring as you say, I'm not sure why you want to stay with him."

Don't ask a question, if feeding back a highlight will get the Explainer/Teller to elaborate.

Make sure that your questions add value and move things on. "I know that Fiona's going to be there, but I'm not sure how you want me to help her."

Use questions to understand key connections in the Explainer/Teller's stories, messages, points of view, and cases. "If you move to out of town, how will this affect mum?"

Ask questions in such a way that the Explainer/Teller can respond, rather than react, to them. Don't ask, "Why don't you act more civil towards her?" but rather, "I know she can be difficult. But what could you do to make meetings with her a little less tense?"

Do not ask leading questions. "When did you stop caring about him?" Rather, "It sounds as if you've stopped caring for him."

Do not ask questions that already contain the answer you want. "Don't you think that we should leave by 4:00?" Rather, be straightforward. State your preference. "I think we should leave by 4:00 to avoid rush-hour traffic."

Don't use questions to play games. Don't ask, "How do you want me to prepare for the meeting?" when you already know that the other person doesn't want you at the meeting at all. Be direct: "I believe you'd rather have me skip the meeting, but I'm not sure why." However, don't be overly direct, or direct at the wrong time.

g. Maintaining a balance of responses in the Understander role.

The ideal approach on the part of the communicator, when in the Understander role, is to respond with a mixture of prompts, highlights, and probes. Remember that the objective of the Understander role is, first, to understand the Explainer/Teller's story, message, or point of view, and second, to let the Explainer/Teller know that you have understood the main points.

A good process for communicators, when in the Understander role, looks something like this:

1. Share highlights selectively as you identify them.

2. Use direct or indirect questions to help the Explainer/Teller provide the information you need to fill in the picture.

3. Once the Explainer/Teller responds to a question, feed back a highlight or two, in order to both share your understanding and check the accuracy of it.

When appropriate, move into the Explainer/Teller role, for instance, to share your own experience as a way of helping both you and your conversational partner understand the issues at hand and move the conversation forward.

Consider the following example. Earl has been talking with Cindy, a colleague at work, about the difficulties he is having with his teenage son, Jerad.

At one point Cindy says, "I'm not sure what role your wife is playing in all this."

Earl replies, "Well … [he sighs] … that's the sore point. We should have a combined approach to dealing with Jerad. But she tends to leave the ‘heavy’ stuff - the discipline and all that - to me… . And … well, it's hard for me to say this … but when I'm not around, she seems almost to be undermining what I do. I just don't know."

Consider two possible responses on the part of Cindy. Let's call them Cindy A and Cindy B.

Cindy A says, "Why do you think she's doing this?"

Such a response has all sorts of things wrong with it. It's another question. Cindy A does not share highlights prompted by her first question. It’s a form of complicity because it intimates that his wife is guilty. It's asking for ‘whys’, when the ‘what’s’ are not yet clear.

Now let's listen to Cindy B. "So, as you see it, she's letting you be the heavy, while she … well, you're not sure what's really going on… And that's got you worried."

In this response, Cindy B simply shares what she has understood. She's understandably cautious and does not take sides. She doesn't jump to any conclusions.

The best way to determine how ‘good’ your response has been is to observe the impact it has on the Explainer/Teller, and on the conversation itself. If the Explainer/Teller seems to react well to what you say, that's a good start. If your response acts as a stimulus to move the conversation forward, even better.

Consider the difference between Earl's response to Cindy A and Cindy B. Let's start by replaying Earl's words,

"Well … [he sighs] … that's the sore point. We should have a combined approach to dealing with Jerad. But she tends to leave the ‘heavy’ stuff - the discipline and all that - to me… . And … well, it's hard for me to say this … but when I'm not around, she seems almost to be undermining what I do. I just don't know."

Cindy A, as we have seen, says, "Why do you think she's doing this?"

Earl replies, "Well, if I knew that, I wouldn't be in such a quandary, would I?"

Earl's response to Cindy A indicates that her question did not open things up but closed them down, even though she didn't ask a closed question. Be careful of ‘whys.’ They tend to get Explainer/Tellers to speculate too much. Questions that begin with ‘why’ are open to multiple answers, all of which can be merely speculative. Now let's try Cindy B, and Earl's response.

"So it seems that she's letting you be the heavy, while she … well, you're not sure what's really going on … And that's got you worried."

And Earl replies, "Very worried. I worry about what's happened to my relationship with her. But what I worry about the most is how all of this is affecting Jerad. These days, life is hard enough for a teenager without getting conflicting signals from his parents."

When Cindy shares a highlight, the conversation moves on. Earl says what is troubling him most. A little later Earl begins to bounce some ideas off Cindy about how he might deal with the conflicting signals Jerad is getting. They move into problem solving mode.

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