Constructive Communication Course

Communication Skill 2: Conversational Etiquette

In my inbox this morning, I found an e-mail from Thrive Global asking “What’s one tip you would give your younger self about communication? Would you tell your younger self to count to ten before responding to someone you disagree with? Or to deal with confrontational conversations in a different way? Would you revisit yourself at the beginning of your career and suggest you respond to emails in a new way? Or to approach certain conversations with more compassion? Or to be more honest about how you felt in specific situations?”

I was preparing the second part of my Constructive Communication Course, using the Seven Challenges Workbook, and this question made me pause. What tip would I have given my younger self to help myself communicate more effectively?

I would have told myself to learn all I could about Conversational Etiquette. To practice until I had perfected it. As a young doctor, about to be let loose on an unsuspecting public, this advice would have had immeasurable value. I would have been able, right from the start, to communicate much more efficiently with my patients.

Conversational Etiquette in a nutshell

It’s a very simple two-step process. Instead of jumping into a conversation without too much thought of what you want to achieve, you start each conversation by declaring your conversational intent. Secondly, you invite the conscious consent of your prospective conversation partner(s.) All you are basically doing is inviting your conversation partner(s) to cooperate with you and so reduce possible misunderstandings. The more important the conversation, the more crucial it is that you know what you want to talk about and that you make your intention clear to the other person(s) before the discussion starts.

En plus, some conversations require a lot more time, effort, and involvement than others. If you want to have a conversation that will require a significant amount of time/effort/participation from the other person, it is important that the other person understands what he or she is getting into and consents to and agrees to engage.

Conversational Etiquette is a simple, two-strep process.

It might sound complicated, but it is actually very simple. You start a conversation by saying things such as:

“Hi, Emily. I need to ask for your help with this essay. Got a minute so that we can talk about it?”

“If this is a good time, let’s sit down for a minute and I’ll tell you what happened…”

“I do not understand exactly how I have to do this. Can we talk about it for a few minutes?”

“Hi, Tony. I need to talk to you about Larry. He’s had a relapse. Is this a good time to talk?”

A consciously consenting participant is much more likely to pay attention and cooperate than someone who feels pushed into an unspecified conversation. When we offer such combined explanations-of-intent and invitations-to-consent we can help our conversations along in three important ways:

  • We give our conversation partners the chance to consent to or decline the offer of a specific conversation.
  • We help the other person(s) to understand the goal (what we want to achieve) of the conversation. We allow our conversation partners to prepare for what is coming, especially if the topic is emotionally loaded.
  • We help our listeners understand the role that we want them to play in the conversation: fellow problem solver, an employee receiving instructions, a student receiving education, emotional supporter, etc.

When we begin a conversation by taking the wishes of the other person into account, we generate goodwill for productive disagreement and creative problem-solving.

Of course, it works both ways. It is just as important to know what someone’s conversational intentions are when they want to talk to you. If someone approaches you, you can

  • Agree to a well-intentioned conversational invitation
  • Negotiate a more appropriate time to have a conversation
  • Gently prompt a person to clarify what kind of conversation she or he is trying to have with you
  • Politely withdraw from a conversation, even if you gave consent at the beginning
  • Decline to engage, especially if it seems as if the goal of the conversation is to:
  1. To lie, deceive or mislead
  2. To threaten
  3. To hurt or abuse
  4. To punish (creates resentment, avoidance and desire for revenge)
  5. To blame (focuses on past instead of present and future)
  6. To control or coerce (force, influence someone against their will and consent)
  7. To manipulate (to influence someone without his or her knowledge and consent)
  8. To demean, humiliate or shame
  9. To stonewalling – denying the existence of a problem in the face of strong evidence and sincere appeals from others
  10. To suppress or invalidate someone’s emotional response to a given event or situation

It is just as important not to initiate conversations like the ones listed above, as it is not to engage in them. For example, catastrophes can be created by coercive conversations:  An engineer warned managers at the Challenger rocket site that cold weather would cause parts of the rocket to fail. The managers “stonewalled,” the rocket was launched, and the four astronauts on board died when the rocket exploded (see Youtube clip below.)  An Air Florida airliner crashed on take-off, killing almost all passengers on board because the pilot coerced the reluctant co-pilot into taking off with too much ice on the wings.  

Exercise 1 : With a conversation partner, choose one of the subjects below and initiate a conversation using the two-step process of Conversational Etiquette:

  • Accept or decline an offer you have made to me.
  • Persuade or motivate you to adopt (a particular) point of view.
  • Persuade or motivate you to choose (a particular) course of action.
  • Forgive you for… / ask for your forgiveness concerning…
  • Make an apology to you about… / request an apology from you about…
  • Offer/ask for an interpretation of… (what this means to you)

Exercise 2 : Explore conversational intentions that create problems: To what degree do you find yourself relying on coercive/deceiving/threatening conversations to influence the people in your life? To what degree are you or were you an unwilling participant in such conversations? What possibilities do you see for change as you become more aware of conversational invitations and intentions?

It is the middle of the working day and you find yourself in a difficult situation. All you want to do is to escape to somewhere peaceful, somewhere far from the ever-increasing stress and never-diminishing demands threatening to suffocate you…

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Communication Skill 1Focused Listening