Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 6;   February 6, 2008: Communication Templates: I

Communication Templates: I

by

Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.

In person-to-person communication, patterns of all kinds abound, but templates are special. They're widely used within the culture, and cultural norms re-enforce them. For instance, in my culture, when I hold out my right hand to someone and say, "Hello, I'm Rick Brenner," a very common response is to take my hand and say, "Hello, I'm George Bush." Well, only if George Bush is your actual name — otherwise most of us would expect to hear your name.

Rabin and Arafat shake hands

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Leader Yasser Arafat shake hands in Washington, on September 13, 1993, with U.S. President Bill Clinton looking on. Actually, President Clinton did much more than just look on, as is evident in videos depicting the event. Not all templates are purely conversational, as in the examples in this article. In the video, Clinton clearly establishes the handshake template by shaking hands first with Rabin, then with Arafat, and then gently nudging the two of them together until Arafat extends a hand to a somewhat reluctant Rabin. Did Clinton manipulate the two men? Judge for yourself. Photo courtesy Global Policy Forum.

Did you find the above example a wee bit humorous? If you did, perhaps you expected the person's actual name, not "George Bush." The strength of that expectation reflects the strength of this template.

Although templates aren't problematic in themselves, how we use them can be, if we use them to manipulate others, or if we reflexively adopt an offered template. In this Part I, I'll examine how we use templates to manipulate others. In Part II, we'll look into some more toxic examples.

In the workplace, some common manipulative uses of templates are persuasion, controlling others' emotions, and stifling criticism.

Persuasion: "You wouldn't want us to do that, now would you?"
This template makes objection difficult. It rests on a previously constructed patently unappealing scenario, which isn't usually what the anticipated objection was about.
To respond to this tactic, try replying in the form, "I certainly would not, but I think we have other options. I'd like to explore them."
Controlling others' emotions: "Now, now, no need to get so hot under the collar about this."
Although templates aren't
problematic in themselves,
how we use them can be
Here the manipulator tries to force a denial of the form "I am not angry," which usually makes the denier look foolish. Remaining cool at all times does help, but even that won't prevent some manipulators from using this template.
To respond, step out of the template. Humor is especially effective, because it demonstrates that your emotions are under control. For example, if you aren't wearing a collar, try, "But I'm not wearing a collar, or at least, I wasn't when I walked in here."
Stifling criticism: "Be reasonable; trust me on this."
In this template the manipulator attempts to equate disagreement with distrust. Since most of us are reluctant to express distrust, expressing disagreement is difficult within this template.
Reject the template: "I do trust you. I also disagree with you. It's because I trust you that I hope you'll want to explore our disagreement."

The strength, variety, and prevalence of templates vary with culture and microculture. Within cultures, there are variations with social status and gender. And although a template is present in your culture, you might not ever use it. Do you see any templates in use in your own life? Which ones do you use yourself? Go to top Top  Next issue: Communication Templates: II  Next Issue

For more on Communication Templates, including some that are even more problematic, see "Communication Templates: II," Point Lookout for February 13, 2008.

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Bill Moyers — host of the PBS program Bill Moyers JournalAsking Clarifying Questions
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
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In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
Carl Philipp Gottfried von ClausewitzLong-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
A black kite, a species of hawkEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: II
Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."
A ravenAnticipate Counter-Communication
Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

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