Thursday, December 6, 2012

Accessible Language

I recently concluded a weekend with a group I was working with for the first time, and the comment I cherished most from the ending evaluation was an appreciation that "I could work with whatever anyone said: there was no 'correct' language." I loved it!

There is a considerable body of literature about group dynamics that encourages readers to be as self-aware as possible and circumspect about how they express themselves in the interest of being minimally triggering for others. While there's nothing wrong with this advice—I'm all in favor of self-awareness—it doesn't help much when someone is really pissed or scared. Especially if you're straining to not be triggering, which tends to come across as deliberate, rather than authentic.

In a culture that generally doesn't know how to communicate emotions cleanly (either giving and receiving), there is both the upset itself and the added nervousness about how the expression of feelings will land. People in distress tend to be hypersensitive to the energy with which they're met (or avoided) and when there's uncertainty about how to do that well it tends to be a perfect storm. The person in distress is uncertain what to share or how to share it, and the receivers are uncertain what they're open to hearing or how to respond in a way that's not an accelerant. Ugh. In the absence of agreements about what to try or what people prefer, our default is to offer what we'd like in return, and it's a crap shoot whether that will work for the other parties.

Fortunately, there's a way out that's relatively simple to remember: you can ask someone what they want. In my experience, what people want most in the moment of distress is to be heard. They do not want to be managed. While they probably also want sympathy and perhaps to be agreed with, they'll settle (mostly) for being accurately held and understood.

I think of it this way:
If there's no bridge between people, then there's no traffic;

If there's no traffic, then there's no exchange of information;
If there's no exchange of information, then there's no collaborative agreement;
If there's no collaborative agreement, then there's no buy-in with implementation;
If there's no buy-in with the implementation, then problems aren't solved.

You have to start with a bridge.

With this in mind, I try hard to work with people where they are (rather than expecting them to come to me, or to learn a certain way of expressing themselves as a precondition for communication to happen). I tell people to simply give me what they have, in their own words. If there's a problem I'll clean it up. 

As a facilitator, my nightmare is people not speaking. If they're talking, I can figure out what's happening; if they clam up I have to guess. (To be clear, I'm not claiming that I get it right the first time every time. I'm saying that if someone is talking, then they give me something to bridge to. If my first attempt falls short, they'll let me know and I can try again.) At the end of the day, it's not about being brilliant; it's about connecting, and people—even upset people—will forgive your getting it wrong at first so long as you get it right in the end. Connection trumps all, and the less constrictions you place on how people express themselves, the easier it is for them to be willing to share what's going on.

Truth as a Weapon
While there is no doubt that a lot of good can come from people being dedicated to seeking and speaking the truth, there are times when doing so can come at the expense of relationship, and then it's not so good. For example, I question the wisdom of saying something that you know will overwhelm or devastate your listener, and then defending your decision with, "It's my truth." I think the prime directive in communication is to establish or strengthen a channel of information between people (rather than to run your truth up their ass).

If you make the choice to share something (note that this can be about how and when you say a thing, as much as about what you say) that you might reasonably expect will overload someone's motherboard, how is that helping? Sometimes the truth can be used to punish, embarrass, or shock. These are hardly noble motivations and indulging in them comes at the expense of relationship and trust. It damages the bridge.

Looking People in the I
There is a lot of support these days for people owning their own statements and not attempting to speak for others. While I think that's excellent advice, I try to not be too picky when someone is in distress. I can work with "you" statements just as well. I only have to listen for the feelings and use that as a bridge to their experience (thereby neutralizing the poison from the "you" statement). 

Sometimes groups that are nervous about the possibility of inadvertently encouraging too much aggression (read personal attacks) when allowing the expression of strong feelings will insist on members using "I" statements. Unfortunately, that can backfire. Either because: a) upset people can become so tied in knots over how to access language orthodoxy when agitated that they shut down; or b) when someone is straining to use an "I" statement the clever listener will automatically translate it back into the "you" statement they suspect underlays it.

It works like this. Jan is furious with Kelly and thinks Kelly is a dickhead. Knowing that the group doesn't want to hear that, Jan sits with it until the upset comes out translated into "I'm furious with you, Kelly—your behavior seems grossly unmindful!" In turn, Kelly, witnessing the unnaturalness of Jan's vocabulary, translates the statement into the mind bubble, "Whoa, Jan thinks I'm a dickhead." So what's to be gained by insisting on "correct" language? If everyone is thinking "dickhead," let's quit dicking around and speaking in tongues!

Reflective Listening
One of the most powerful tools in deescalating  tension is getting people to demonstrate that they've heard what another has said by reflecting the essence of it back to them. While this is an excellent practice, it's depressing how often people signal the attempt to do so with the banal and superfluous opening phrase, "What I hear you saying is… " which adds nothing.

Better, in my view, is to cut to the chase with, "Wow, Jan, you're really pissed about how unmindful Kelly was." My mantra is: keep it simple; keep it direct; and get the affect right.

The main point here is that good communication is not about learning the right rules of the road, so much as it's about speaking from the heart and being able to capture the essence—both the content and the energy—of what another has said. It doesn't have to be more complicated than that.

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