Patterns of Everyday Conversation
by Rick Brenner
Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
As Liz and Alex walked across the lawn toward the review meeting in Building J, Liz realized that she had a rare opportunity — Alex was able to speak freely, if he was inclined to, without the rest of Engineering listening in. So she decided to just ask him straight out. "Alex, you know we've been trying to find out what you all want Marigold to do about Phase II. Tell me."
Alex stopped walking. Liz did too, and as she turned toward him, he said, "Phase II. You mean with the Diamond Square fixes, or without?"
"Both," she replied.
Liz has just used a tactic I call "Seek all possible answers." When you ask a question, and the respondent offers you a choice of conditions, say "Both" or "All of the above." If you choose only one, respondents sometimes slant or spin their answers, possibly without realizing it. When you choose "all," the answers all have to be consistent, which makes spinning much more difficult.
Here are three more patterns that appear frequently in everyday conversation.
Mastering the patterns
of our conversations
makes you a more
Compile a catalog.
- Find a neutral way out
- When you and your partner come to an impasse, find a neutral way out. But instead of offering it, let it be discovered. Usually only a little guidance is needed, since you're both searching for an exit. For instance, if you believe that you both agreed to be ready on the 14th, and your partner insists it was the 8th, suggest that you work out a new date together instead of figuring out who was right, or even worse, continuing to insist that you were right.
- Become a master of the interview
- When you sense that your partner is making it up on the fly, don't argue — it probably won't be necessary. Instead, switch to interview mode. Since your partner's argument is probably untested, ask for more detail and examples, watching closely for holes or inconsistencies. When you find one, ask about it. This is especially effective if you can loop back to contradict an initial assertion. On the other hand, if your conjecture about fabrication is incorrect, you will have actually helped to develop a stronger position. Either way, zero risk for you.
- Use the hypothetical to get around the obstacle
- If you meet an obstacle, ask the hypothetical question: "If we could do it, how would we do it?" Then apply the response to reality: "OK, well what if we do that?" If your partner wants to preserve the obstacle, he or she must find a difference between the hypothetical and the real — a difference so compelling that the hypothetical doesn't apply. If you constructed the hypothetical cleverly, finding that difference can be very difficult, and you'll often move closer to agreement.
Patterns are everywhere, but take care — they're often violated, and you can't always tell when they are. For instance, you've probably noticed that these little essays often end with a twist. This one doesn't. Or does it? Top Next Issue
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