Ever eavesdrop on a couple of people talking? Sure, we all have. I started to do a lot of that a while back – just to see if there were patterns. I wasn’t interested so much in what was being said but how and why it was being said. What I found was fascinating. When people talk there almost always seems to be one of two broad structures to their conversation. These two patterns of ‘talk’ are quite different and seem to grow out of agreed upon assumptions about the purpose of their talking.
The first reason people seem to talk is to impart information. I will be telling you something that I believe you didn’t know and, presumably, which you either want to or need to know. In this kind of ‘talking’ the exchange is unidirectional – from the informed to the uninformed – with the ‘transaction’ resulting in you being better informed. You will notice that I did not choose words that suggested any relationship between what I was telling you and either fact or truth. This kind of ‘talk’ is proselytizing and is a process of instruction.
Sometimes this exchange is two-way – but within the same pattern. I will tell you something that I suspect you didn’t know then it’s your turn to tell me something that you suspect that I didn’t know. This kind of ‘conversation’ often reminds me of a tennis game – when the ball arrives on your side of the net you have ‘received’ – then it’s your turn and you return fire – sending your gift of enlightenment back over the net. The pattern continues until an errant shot takes the ball outside the boundaries of the court.
Tennis is a good example for another reason – social distancing is a big part of ‘type of talk’. Participants see themselves as separate from each other and engaged in a process that is inherently both linear and binary – involving distinctly defined roles and prerogatives. I’ve noticed three variations on this pattern:
- The Lecture: In this situation it is mutually accepted that one of the participants is far better informed than the other and bears the responsibility to ‘educate the other. In this variation the objective is the transfer of information with the results that the ‘student’s’ beliefs becoming more closely aligned with the ‘instructor’s’. Most proselytizers prefer to adopt this stance – although sometimes the audience doesn’t go along with the proposed arrangement.
- The Debate: Here two or more people engage in a process designed to achieve ascendancy for their particular views. An organized debate can seem very much like a tennis match – with both sides lobbing their most potent weapons at the other – trying to impress the judge – whether that judge be an individual or the ‘public’ – that their position should be considered best. Here the objective is to dominate the other side and have your position prevail. A good example of this kind of communication is the back and forth ‘war of words’ engaged in by political hacks. This kind of communication is inherently tribal – driven by the proposition that the fortunes of a subset of humanity – for instance, the Democratic or Republican Party – is the most important issue – its the tribe against the rest of the world. These kinds of debates take on the dynamics of artillery duels with the civilian population considered little more that background noise – irrelevant bystanders. Debates are not about seeking the truth – they are about winning.
- The Competition: In a competition the principal objective is to win – the details of the position become secondary to the ‘game’. The objective becomes the ‘most effective advocacy’ or, to put it in post-modernist terms ‘lobbying’. Most of the practitioners of this form of talking are hired guns – lawyers, lobbyists, politicians or talk show hosts (my somewhat derisive terms for what passes for TV journalists these days). You get paid so you argue for your client’s position. You’re an actor and suddenly some soap becomes the best thing since sliced bread. You are a lobbyist and suddenly toxic waste is really not that toxic at all.
Once you start looking for them, you can find examples of all three of these ‘patterns’. They are dominant in the media simply because television and most radio programming are mono-directional. But, if you listen to most talk radio or watch most TV interview shows (the ones where the talking heads are not just interviewing each other), you will also see lots of examples of the tennis match approach to ‘talking’.
The overall defining characteristic of these types of ‘talking’ is that somebody wins – that one side prevails – that one person comes around to see it from another’s perspective. As a result the conversations are mostly a zero sum – I have been proven right and you have been proven wrong – or as a net plus one event – you were against now you are neutral. Of course, the grand objective of all this type or ‘talking’ is the net plus two result – you are now essentially me on this issue – we agree completely.
The second pattern is something that I call the construction project. There is a different dynamic in this form of talking – and a great difference in the purpose of the conversation. The first – and most important – difference is the emergence of a middle ground – a space between which comes to be used as a kind of drafting table. Envision it this way – you and I are sitting at a table and on it there is a project that we are working on. We are working to improve it – figure out how to make it work better. Our focus is on the project and we both are involved in contributing ideas – making suggestions – as to how it can be improved. Maybe following your idea, we change it this way and try it out. Then, following my suggestions we try it another way and see how that goes. In the end it is the impact of the changes – the impact on the project – that determines how useful either of our contributions has been.
This is clearly a much more complex process of communication. I need to communicate my ideas so clearly that you actually understand what I am proposing – and are able to see the implications of my suggestions. This is a far more difficult task than the one which arises out of the first type of communication where my proselytizing only has to convert you to my point of view – even if you don’t understand its complete implications. Because we are building something between us – an understanding or a design for something that we will build – or something that we are actually building – my dedication needs to be to the project – to what is evolving in the space between us.
I also need to be able to rely on you for the same approach. Without an agreement on this essential point, our conversation will take on a distorted shape and the space and project between us will be replaced by an empty void – proselytizing will become our only remaining recourse.
This type of communication is inherently collaborative. In fact, there is something conspiratorial – in the mildest meaning of the word – about such ‘talking’. Participation need to be guided by the ideals of contribution and construction of a common vision. And as we talk – and stay firmly dedicated to the principals of collaboration, contribution and constructiveness – we see the cumulative results of our efforts rising before your eyes – something that was not there before we started. This is a process of creation.
One of the major differences between ‘instructive’ and ‘constructive’ communication is the net result – the objective is fundamentally different. Whereas ‘instructive’ communicators will settle for results ranging from zero to a paltry plus two, the ‘constructive’ communicators are focused on results that vastly exceed plus two – why not plus 100 or plus 1000?
I have noticed three variations on this pattern of ‘talking’:
- Equal but different: In this variation two people – one lyricist and another a composer for example – collaborate to write a new song. In an increasingly complex world where multi-disciplinary approaches are necessary to solve complex problems, these kinds of partnerships are essential. The objective is agreed on – the contributions are made by each party – the thing grows between them – and the value of their efforts is determined by how well each made their contributions – and how well they combined their individual skills and knowledge to create the results. If nobody ever sings or plays the song, what was the point?
- Hierarchical but not: Imagine an operating room – an operation is taking place – there is the surgeon and the support staff – various specialists – nurses. Each brings a skill to the operation – each makes a contribution to the hoped for results. The project is there on the operating table – the patient. The objective is to relieve the project of some ‘inconvenience’. Each participant in the ‘conversation’ has a skill – a role – a technology to bring to bear. Now it is not just a lyricist and composer – but a broader range or skills and capabilities that collaborate towards a common objective.
- Facilitation: Sometimes it is important to have a third party occupy the middle ground with the project. This facilitation is in some ways similar to the function of an air traffic controller – assuring an orderly arrival and consideration of the contributions or the various parties to the conversation. In another way a facilitator is like a compass – keeping things pointing in the right direction and assuring that the overall objectives of the conversation are kept front and center. A facilitator can also be a dispassionate determiner of merit when disagreements arise. Think of this form of talking as refereed collaboration.
All of these variations begin with the same thing – and agreement on the purpose of the ‘talk’ – on the project that is to be addresses. That is the central difference between the two forms – ‘instructive’ and ‘constructive’. I have moderated – facilitated – conversations during some of my consulting engagements – and, in doing so pushed the idea that an agreement on purpose should precede discussions of differences. The results most often were a morphing of the dynamics from an instructive to construction model.
Collaborative communication can result in significant multiplier effects – massive increases in the combined impacts of the various skills and knowledge available within the team. Because personal score-keeping does not dominate the process, the results can be significantly greater.
A tap on the shoulder
Here is something that you can do that may help you see the patterns of ‘talking’ that you gravitate towards – and to assess the impact – or cost – or those patterns. Take a small blank card and write ‘instructive’ on one side and ‘constructive’ on the other. Keep it hands – somewhere you might find it by a chance action. I put mine in my right pocket because I have a habit of putting my hand there while talking. When you do ‘happen upon’ the card, take it out an look at it – turn it over and ask your self which of the two you are adopting and is that adoption helping or hurting your overall objective in talking to this person. These ‘taps on the shoulder’ can help bring you in contact with your behaviors and help you improve your communication skills and the results that come from them.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II