People Using Language Skills Effectively

By Dr. Nancy Love

 

If you have been on the planet a while then you already know how to speak and listen to your fellow human beings.  You have probably experimented with different approaches to communication and have developed your own repertoire of how to get what you need out of a conversation.  You have been more or less successful in your everyday encounters and have learned to adjust what you say and how you say it according to the situation and the audience.  The skills presented in this article are not necessarily new to you.  These are the skills of conversation that you have used or that someone has used with you.  The purpose here is to define the skills in a way that will allow you as a mediator or, as I prefer to call myself, a conversation practitioner, to access them more readily and know when each skill can be most effectively put to use in a conversation and in the high conflict conversations associated with mediation. 

Using language skills effectively in conversation requires your attention and your intention to be deliberate and focused.  The PULSE conversation has helped many people resolve differences by showing them when and where to apply the skills and structure so that sustainable outcomes can be assured.  The PULSE Conversation Frame provides the structure for successful, effective conversations.  It is a five stage process that Prepares people for the conversation by setting a purpose, process and a protocol, determining a level of confidentiality and authority, defining roles and a time commitment at the beginning.  Parties then Uncover the circumstances from the past that precipitated the conversation and give a title to “the story” by answering the question “What is to be decided or resolved?”  Parties speak directly to each other to Learn the significance of “the story” and use that information to set criteria for a sustainable future.  Then they Search for options that will meet their criteria in a brainstorm session.  Once options are identified those that are feasible, doable and within the authority of the parties are chosen for consideration in the Explain stage where a detailed plan of action is generated by the parties.  Each of the stages relies on the different skills of the practitioner to create a sense of comfort, to be courageous, curious, confident and committed to the process and a sustainable, balanced outcome.

 

 

PULSE identifies twenty skills for conversation practitioners to use.  The twenty can be divided into four sets of five skills which support each other.  Table 1 lists the skills and indicates the relationship:

 

Table  1

Intention to encourage … GHOST HEART POWER Wheel of Change
 Comfort Gentle Hush Paraphrase Normalizing
Courage Honest Empathize Open Questions Transparency
Curiousity Open Attend Wait Immediacy
Confidence Specific Reflect Empathize Confrontation
Commitment Talk Trust Reframe Bridging

 

My intention is to describe the skills individually according to the acronyms or pneumonic we use to help people remember them (down the chart) and then re-examine them according to their shared purpose (across the chart) and include a description of where in the PULSE conversation the skill is used to greatest advantage.  This article focuses on the Gentle, Honest, Open, Specific Talk, the protocol of the PULSE conversation.

Gentle

In the PULSE conversation participants are asked, invited really, to speak gently to each other.  Speaking gently allows the other person to keep on listening.  You know that when someone uses an aggressive tone with you, you tend to shut down, so to avoid any risk of shutting the other person down or raising their defences participants are invited to speak so the other person can hear what they are saying.  We use gently rather than respectfully because out of respect parties may hold things back or say things that may not be entirely true.  Speaking gently allows the other party to hear everything that is on your mind, not just the things that someone in their position ought to know.  Finding a way to say everything that is on your mind can be the key to quality, sustainable resolutions and decisions.  Choosing gentle words so that the impact is cushioned is a skill.  Speaking so others can listen takes practice because the situation and the perspective of the other person will influence the words, the tone, the pace, and the delivery of your version of the story.  Each person will have their own perspective on the situation and on the world.  To speak gently is to value the others perspective and to work at building a shared perspective from which to see the future together. 

What I have learned through the study of personality typing and from my own sociological research, living among people in conversation for the last 30 years is that there are nine basic perspectives on the world. Each one represents 40 Degrees of the entire 360 Degrees of perspective available to us as human beings.  Each is a set of Beliefs, Expectations, Assumptions, Concerns and Hopes that have come to be known as the PULSE BEACHes.  Knowing the 40 degree perspectives in conversation, the PULSE Beaches, gives speakers knowledge and flexibility as they choose their gentle words.  The perspectives have two dimensions.  One represents their orientation to the world.  The other presents their movement in the world, what I have called their direction in conversation.  People in conversation come with one of three orientations.  They are either focused on the past, the present of the future. Each orientation will take one of three directions; moving toward, moving with or moving away from.  See Table 2 for the complete list of nine perspectives on the matrix.  For example, those who are focused on the past come from emotion and will take have one of three directions or perspective that they take.  They may be moving toward the circumstance.  I call these people dancers.  They may be moving with the circumstance.  I call them dutiful, which is how Helen Palmer and Riso and Hudson talk about them.  They may also be moving away from the circumstances.  I call them detachers.

Table 2 – PULSE BEACHS – nine sets of Beliefs, Expectations, Assumptions, Concerns and Hopes

  Past – Heart Present- Body Future- Head
Dancer – moving toward Success Power Excitement
Dutiful – moving with Connection Perfection Security
Detacher – moving away Differentiation Peace Detachment

 

The names of the individual BEACHes describe what people on those BEACHes are seeking in their lives, what is missing for them, from their perspective that would make the world complete.  Once the speaker has identified if the person is coming from a dutiful, dancer to detacher perspective and whether they have a past, present or future orientation then they can deliberately choose their words to create a story that the other can hear.

The invitation to speak gently gives parties the freedom and the comfort to enter the conversation.  They understand that although conversations in the past may have been unsuccessful, the opportunity to say things differently and the invitation to listen to someone who is speaking in a gentle way, changes the dynamic enough to move people toward changing their mind or their perspective on the situation.  Having a conversation practitioner present as witness to the conversation, someone who can “hold the space” for the conversation also gives them a sense of safety or comfort as they prepare to enter the conversation.

Honest

Red Zone                                             Green Zone
Yellow Zone

At first you wouldn’t necessarily identify being honest as a skill, however, the role of honesty in conversation cannot be overstated.  It takes courage to be honest and to say what you are thinking.  The satisfaction of both parties as to the outcome will depend on how honest they have been and how honest they perceived the other to have been.  Perception of honesty, genuineness and authenticity is crucial in conversation.  It is necessary if a sustainable outcome is to be achieved.  When we are in conversation our instincts are engaged and we can sense any indication of threat on the one hand or connection on the other.  Disingenuous or dishonest words or body language or ones perception of dishonesty will keep parties stuck in what I call the Red Zone of retaliation (Cycles of Perception – Figure 2).  They perceive a threat and experience anger and a reflex of fight, flight or freeze.  Dancers will move toward and fight the other.  Detachers will go away or flee from the other. Dutifuls move with the other and, not knowing what to do, will freeze.  Whichever reflex is triggered, it will facilitate a behavioural response that the other perceives as a threat.  The cycle of anger, flight, fright or freeze and perception of threat continues until perceptions change.  A key element for changing perceptions is honesty.  If parties can find the courage to be honest, to say what they are thinking, in a way that allows the other person to keep listening, then the cycle can change.  One genuine, honest, open gesture can turn a conversation around.  When both parties experience the conversation as authentic and honest, then perceptions of threat are replaced by perception of connection or relatedness.  A conciliatory gesture or any action or word perceived as honest and conciliatory, any perception of voluntary vulnerability will begin to move parties through the Yellow Zone of conversation to the Green Zone of conciliation.  In the green zone the reflexes that are triggered when vulnerability and connection are experienced are to release, relax and relate.  Parties release the emotional response of the heart, they relax their body and begin to relate on an intellectual level, in their heads.  x

The fight is released. The flight is relaxed and the freeze begins to relate again to the world.  Release, Relax, Relate reflexes begin a new cycle of release, relax, relate which allows parties to continue to be honest and authentic with each other.  The skill is to notice and support the attempts at honesty and conciliation.  In conversation these attempts can be hidden in aggressive forms or erased by the “but” in the middle of the sentence.  For the practitioner, modelling honesty for parties is essential.  Listening for and identifying authenticity is also essential.  Asking them to say more about the honest, conciliatory pieces will help to move them closer to resolution by shifting them toward the Green Zone.

Honesty is also important in the Red Zone.  If things go unsaid, if people choose to be less than honest and leave feelings unexpressed then the quality of the resolution or decision is jeopardized.  Thinking not Talking (TNT) is dangerous, explosive really.  People harbour resentment for hurts not addressed and the parties are destine to repeat the patterns.  Encouraging honesty in the conversations is the first step toward establishing honesty as a key element of the relationship going forward.  Honesty in expression of content, process and response takes courage on the part of the parties and can make all of the difference in the outcome of the conversation.  Parities need to lay all the cards on the table face up.  “I think or know this …” “I am doing this …” “I am feeling this …” At each stage honesty plays a role.  When parties can be honest with each other and themselves in preparing for the conversation, when they can be honest about the past circumstance and uncover what the conversation is about: when they can learn from each other what is truly important to them about the circumstance so that they can identify criteria for a better future, when they can search real possibilities for the future, based on their criteria, in an honest, genuine exchange of actions then they are better prepared to explain in writing a sustainable plan of action for the future. 

Open

As important as being gently and honest are, it is also necessary for parties to be open to learning what the other person is saying and to allow what is being said to influence their own version of the story.  This also takes courage and a curiousity.  It is scary to allow yourself to think that the other person’s point of view may have some validity.  We all convince ourselves that we are right about things.  It’s what keeps us sane and keeps us going.   And everything we hear or see or experience provides us with more evidence of our “rightness”.  Being open to what is being said takes courage.  To be curious about the others person’s story requires a commitment to building understanding and relationship.  To be curious about what they are saying requires me to give up my story.  “My story” is supported by evidence, based on beliefs I hold, conclusions I have drawn, from meaning I have added, to the data that I have selected from what really happened.  To be curious and open to other perspectives means letting go of what I know and noticing different things about the situation or the other person.

What we know as human beings is that once you buy a red car, there are suddenly hundreds of red cars on the street that we have not noticed before.  The Ladder of Inference, Figure 3, and the reflex loop tell us that we see what we are looking for and we hear what we are listening for.  In fact our conclusions may be based on meaning that we have added to our own interpretation of events.  We may have projected meaning on to the actions of the other party that were simply not what they had intended at all.  The role of the conversation leader, the PULSE Practitioner, is to help parties stay open to the other person’s story by backing them down the ladder of inference to the shared, observable data so that new meaning can be added to the story and a different outcome can be achieved.

What we also know now, is that there are nine ladders. (See Table 2)  Three of them are oriented toward the past, three toward the present and three toward the future.  Three are moving toward the other, three are moving with and three are moving away.  Being aware that every story has nine perspective or ladders allows practitioners and parties to stay open to other interpretations of the story.  Like poetry, the circumstances we find ourselves in are open to interpretation.  Listening to different interpretations of the same story broadens our understanding.  It is not necessary to change your story.  You have the freedom to choose between understanding and agreement.  The purpose of the PULSE conversation is to create a safe environment where parties can prepare, uncover, learn, search and explain a broader understanding of the circumstance.  If the parties have heard new information and allowed it to influence their story, if they have remained open to another interpretation and demonstrated courage or curiosity or commitment to understanding the circumstance then the conversation is effective and perceptions and perspectives may change.

 

 

 
The Reflexive Loop (our beliefs affect what data we select next time)

The Ladder of Inference, Chris Argyris (Ross 1994)

Supporting openness in the conversation is tricky business.  Practitioners invite parities to be open to what is being said.  When the practitioner is not sure that party A has heard party B they can ask party A to “say more about…” to ensure that party B has the opportunity to hear and be influenced once more. To keep the conversation open, the practitioner guards against making the party appear to be wrong.  I have seen too many mediated conversation be derailed by a well intentioned mediator asking party B to repeat what party A said.  Either party B gets it wrong and party A is incensed or party B feels like the mediator has chosen party A’s story over theirs.  Either way no progress towards resolution is made.  One or both parties are likely to turn on each other or the mediator.  Asking Party A to say more about their own statement allows them to elaborate, allows party B to hear again and everyone saves face, remaining open to the story.  Of course the skilful mediator will then ask B to elaborate or “say more about…” a conciliatory word or words they may have used earlier to balance attention and focus equally on the parties.  Practitioners remain open to hearing what is being said and allow what they hear to guide their actions as they encourage parties gently and honestly to be open to the conversation.

Specific

Being Specific in a conversation eliminates misunderstanding and confusion.  It requires confidence from each party to trust the other with the details and confidence to the process.  When parties are encouraged to use examples and explain meaning then the climbing of the ladder of inference is slowed, halted or even reversed.  Many disputes turn out to be misunderstandings.  Encouraging the use of specific examples can clear things up and the future can become obvious.  Often in mediated conversation I hear “Oh … I didn’t know that … well then let’s do this ….” and things come quickly to resolution.  Sometimes parties may be using the same word and attributing totally different meanings to the same word.  This can happen at each stage of the conversation.  Have you ever had a conversation where later you wondered if you were both talking about the same thing?  When I served as high school principal I remember an incident where I had a brief conversation in the corridor with one of my staff members.  I asked how things were going for her.  She described the outcome of a situation she had been dealing with and although I was surprised by what she was saying I accepted her judgement as to the appropriateness of her response to the parent we were discussing.  I was puzzled so later I approached her again and learned that there were two “Janes” in her class and she had been talking about Jane 1 while I had been thinking about the situation with Jane 2 and her parents.  A simple miscommunication like this might have led me straight up the ladder of inference to a belief that the teacher was not in touch with what was going on in her classroom and I may have subconsciously begin to treat her differently.  She may be confused by my actions and do things that would feed into my reflexive loop and strengthen my false assumption because I was interpreting her actions as less than competent.  This kind of reflexive exchange can blow out of proportion to a full scale dispute with parties on both sides misinterpreting the actions of the other.  A simple clarifying question “Which Jane are we discussing?” can clear everything up so that both parties are on the same ladder.

Even when things have begun to derail, curiosity and confidence in the process can bring it back especially if that curiosity leads to evidence that builds confidence between the parties.  “I’m confused…” can elicit more information and add clarity.  “I’m confused” works better than “You’re crazy.” It is the gentle version. “I” statements such as “When you (insert behaviour), I feel (insert emotion) because (insert belief, expectation, assumption, concern or hope) is important.” You may even add “I prefer (insert alternative behaviour).”  This kind of specific talk builds trust and opens the conversation.  Focusing on the details, the specifics of the content, process or response within their conversation allows parties to begin to distinguish between their own unique perspectives, the others unique perspective and the common perspective they have for the future.  The unique perspectives legitimize their differences and the common ones give hope for a future together.

Being specific about how the conversation is proceeding (Prepare,) what the conversation is about (Uncover), why it’s important (Learn), what could be done (Search) and what parties agree to do (Explain) helps the practitioner and the parties move through the process.  Specific examples about what has happened in the past, what is happening now and what may happen in the future leave no doubt about the plan and its intention. Specificity leads to clarity at each stage and contributes to the sustainability of the outcome.  Stones left unturned may hide content, process or responses that may have a negative effect on the outcome and the relationship.  Practitioners keep their antenna up for any indication that parties have not understood each other.  The POWER tool, Paraphrase, Open Question, Wait, Emphasize and Reframe is used to redirect toward a clearer shared understanding of the positive aspects of the conversation and the relationship.  Focusing on the specific details of what is working in the conversation and the relationship allows parties to see the story and each other differently and the future becomes obvious.

Talk

Another way to move parties toward a balanced, sustainable outcome is to keep them talking.  Talk is the answer.  Circumstances do not change without a dialogue on the specific topic that is contributing to any sense of discomfort.  We often talk about the feeling in the office when the “undiscussables” are present.  The ‘elephant in the room’ is what we call the things that people feel ill prepared to discuss.  There is a level of fear, anxiety or insecurity attached.  The uncertainty, based on assumptions and different ladders, leads parties to the fight, flight, or freeze reflexes, and keep parities in the Red Zone where, rather than naming and dealing with the elephant, a cycle of retaliation is created.  Talk is what people need to do in order to move past the reflexes of fight, flight or freeze.  Choosing to talk, to have a conversation about the elephant can change things.  The first question directed at the subject throws light on the elephant and frees people to talk about it rather than around it.  The moment of curiosity is the first moment of change which can lead to the release, relax and relate reflexes of connection that build relationship in the Green Zone. 

Keeping parities engaged in conversation, keeping them talking for ninety minutes is key.  Most conversations last something less than that which means there is not enough time for the parties to “shift” from retaliation to conciliation, from the Red Zone to the Green Zone.  Ninety minutes is a commitment to resolution and it allows enough time for the four forces toward having identified by Dr. Dan Dana to kick in and influence people’s perception.  The first “force” is fatigue.  People get tired of fighting, fleeing or freezing, especially if it is not working for them.  They can usually maintain it for 1ten minutes or event thirty minutes but there will come a point when they move away from that reflex especially if a skilled practitioner is helping them notice the open gestures that the other party may be offering.  Those gestures are often hidden in defensive language and may need to be supported with a gentle “Say more about that” for the shift to begin. 

Fatigue is only one of the forces and on its own it is likely to lead only to a greater sense of frustration.  The second “force” is our in born desire for peace.  All human being are searching for a level of comfort in their lives.  That comfort will look different to different people.  I can predict from what we know about people and perspective  that there will be nine definitions for a peaceful, perfect, connected, successful, different, detached, secure, exciting, or powerful world. (Table 2)  We are all seeking that sense of comfort however we define it.  The third “force” identified by Dana is catharsis, that feeling you get after you say what is on your mind and the sky doesn’t fall.  There is a sense of relief when you can be honest and actually express your thoughts, actions and feelings out loud.  Sometimes our thoughts are so loud in our head we believe that the other “should” know what we are thinking and can be surprised by the response once the thoughts become words. Once the words are out in the world for everyone to hear there is a sense of relief or catharsis that allows you to release your emotional response, relax you body and relate to the other party.  The release, relax and relate reflexes move parities to the Green Zone where conciliatory gestures create a new cycle. 

Saying what you are thinking (talking) so that you can feel the catharsis or sense of relief is one side of the coin.  Hearing a conciliatory gesture as true, genuine, authentic and being open to allowing it to “land” will put the fourth “force” to work.  Dana describes the fourth “force” as the “inhibitory reflex”.  It is that reflex you feeling when you hear or notice something that you interpret as voluntary vulnerability.  It is a natural biological reflex to an expression of vulnerability from members of your own species to release, relax and relate when they are doing the same.  Just the way you are “hard wired” for fight, flight or freeze when you perceive a threat, you are also “hard wired” to respond with release, relax, relate when you perceive voluntary vulnerability.  One way to ensure that people move through fight, flight and freeze to release, relax and relate is to keep them talking.  A gentle reminder that nintey minutes has been set aside for the conversation may be all that is necessary to have one conciliatory gesture land as an expression of vulnerability and for the perception to begin to change. 

Other Skills

Gentle, Honest, Open, Specific, Talk are the skills or the intention that we encourage from the participants and the ones that we model as practitioners of PULSE.  Together they represent the protocol for the conversation.  We also use the other skills in Table 1 to improve the quality of the conversation.  Skilful practitioners give the “inhibitory reflex” a boost by using the POWER skills to Bridge to the positive statements they hear.  Paraphrasing, using Open questions, Waiting, Empathizing and Reframing, the POWER skills, provide the evidence of the listening while listening with HEART, Hush, Empathize, Attend, Reflect and Trust provide the internal skills for staying focused.  The skills on the wheel of change, Normalizing to create a sense of comfort, Transparency to demonstrate courage, Immediacy to demonstrate curiosity, Confrontation to demonstrate confidence and Bridging to demonstrate commitment to a positive future are the skills of the practitioner in difficult conversations.  Each of these sets of skills will be elaborated in articles that follow.  Each of the skills in turn contributes to the comfort, courage, curiosity, confidence and commitment of the practitioner and the parties as they move through the structured conversation toward resolution or decision.  We call it World Peace – One Conversation at a Time…..

 

Works Cited

Dana, Daniel. Managing Differences. Kansas City: MTI Publications, 2005.

Love, Nancy. PULSE Conversations for Change. Calgary: The PULSE Institute, 2008.

Ross, Rick. “The Ladder of Inference.” In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge, 242-246. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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