The “Rule of Four”
I have said often that communication skills are about the most awful failure of human beings. More trouble comes from failed conversations and dialogues than from anything else we engage in. It can be quarrels in the home or world strife, like the current communication breakdown between Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Bad communication leads to stress, failure, misunderstanding and hostility. Instead of something which binds people, it becomes something which divides.
“All he ever talks about is himself—what he’s doing, what he’s interested in, what his ideas are.”
“She constantly lectures me. She never asks what I think.”
“There’s no disagreeing with him. I just let him expound, and then I just try to change the subject.”
“She has an opinion about everything, and she’ll give it to you—whether you ask for it or not.”
The secret to being a good conversationalist—one whom people enjoy talking with, and whose company they seek—is very simple: just talking with others, not to them or (even worse) at them.
I can’t tell you the number of people I meet who claim to be “spiritual”, yet can’t talk meaningfully to others, without walking all over them in conversations, wanting to bully and force others to adopt their own “correct” point of view and are dismissive of others, even ridiculing them.
Not so spiritual, after all!
According to William Glasser MD, we all have two profound needs: the need to love and feel lovable and the need to feel valuable. We are all seeking warmth and appreciation. Yet, as Dr. Karl Albrecht remarked in an article posted on Psychology Today, too many people are too busy appreciating themselves in conversation to notice or appreciate others.
The truth is, though, good communication is quite difficult. It has so many interweaving threads.
Whether we like it or not, most people react to more than just the words we say. They respond to certain subtle features of our statements, and to the degree of respect, appreciation, and generosity we convey in the way we speak.
People who throw out dogmatic opinions like little verbal hand grenades usually don’t recognize the reactions of rejection and avoidance by others, who feel a vague sense that they’re being bombarded or bullied.
Remember, if people are out of agreement with what you are saying, or HOW you are saying it, that enforces what I call in Supernoetics, my science of consciousness and Being, a “crash of accord”. Accord in the principle of harmony, togetherness, respect and agreement.
A crash of accord means that the relationship has broken down and this is marked most clearly by absent or nasty conversation. It’s gone from “friend” to “stupid bitch” or from “great” to “piss off”. Thing is, I do not believe we have a right to use such insulting language. We certainly shouldn’t do it while the person can hear; but that’s being rather hypocritical, you will quickly see… Yet most people seem to think it’s a God-given right, to insult and criticize others to their face. Trouble is, once done, it becomes much harder to retract such unpleasant phrases.
Best not to use them in the first place.
How Can You Find a Better Way to Communicate?
What’s a better way? How can you attract people to yourself and your ideas, instead of alienating them? Start by understanding and carefully managing the way you use the following four kinds of sentences in your conversations:
1. Declarations, Facts and Opinions. Statements of “fact,” or at least something you’re claiming is a fact, for example: “The United States has one of the worst healthcare systems in the world.” A statement that is truly declarative can be verified by some evidence. Unfortunately, too many supposedly declarative sentences are really no more than disguised opinions: “A nationalized health plan will never work in this country.”
A conversation with 100% declaratives, and a predominance of opinions, is a conversation that’s really all about the speaker.
2. Enforced Advice: You need to be careful giving advice and especially on HOW you give advice. It can be very sensitive. Best to explore carefully with, “I had a situation like that once. Do you want to hear how I solved it?” A big mistake is to thrust advice onto someone who doesn’t want it, has not asked your opinion and will not likely hold you up as a trusted source. In a situation like that, “advice” can become the same as barking orders; telling people what to do. “You need to smarten up your act,” or “Get a life.” Basically, don’t advise anyone on anything, no matter your expertise, who hasn’t asked you for it.
Remember, even just, “You can’t do that,” is enforced advice.
3. Questions and Invitations: Ways we invite others to contribute what they know and believe. A question or “handing over the mike” allows others to feel that they’re participating in it, rather than enduring it: “Where are your favorite places to travel?” “What are your thoughts about animal welfare?” “How are you dealing with that challenge?”
A fair number of invitations to contribute to the conversation shows that you’re willing to share the stage with the other person or people. Be careful: “Do you really think that will work?” further; but put emphasis on the word really and it becomes mocking.
4. Softeners and Conditionals: these are ways of expressing our views, opinions, and perspectives gently, with specific acknowledgement that others have the right to see things differently. This is something you need to practice. Instead of “Melatonin is no good for insomnia,” consider this sort of alternative: “I can’t speak for everyone, but taking melatonin supplements doesn’t seem to help me sleep.”
The use of phrases like—”It seems to me…”; “As far as I know…”; “I think I read somewhere that…”; “I’m not completely certain, but I think…”—conveys in a subtle way that you respect the other person’s right to a different viewpoint, and signals that you’ll treat their ideas with respect, even if you disagree.
Not everyone “gets” this concept right away. People who’ve spent most of their lives battling to get their point of view across often feel that identifying one’s opinion as just an opinion is a wimpy and time-wasting conversational strategy.
True, it signals that the other person might have a different, and legitimate, view. But that’s the whole point, not a failing. If the other’s viewpoint has no value to you, the whole thing is a waste of time and you are a fool for engaging in conversation at all! Think about that…
Try an experiment for the next few days, to evaluate this “rule of four.” When you’re in a conversation of any kind—casual or business—try to monitor the proportion of declaratives, questions, and conditionals you use and try hard to spot enforced advice.
After a few declaratives, try turning the conversation around and asking a question, so the other person can begin to own it. Blah blah, “Do you agree?” or “Don’t you think?” Just remember to step back and listen, having given up the stage for the moment!
When you answer, try substituting a conditional or qualified response for the strong opinion you might otherwise have put out: “Well, I could be wrong but…”
As you consciously rearrange your way of speaking to others, try to detect the subtle reactions others show to the nuances. While you’re at it, try to keep track of the relative proportion of the four key sentence types in the conversations of others. How does the relative abundance of all four types affect their conversations, in your judgment?
Even just to start noticing the effect your words are having on other people will put you in a tiny, sophisticated minority of human beings and good conversationalists!
Mind what you say!