Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NT Planet: Different Levels of Communication

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler - founders of VitalSmarts - have written an interesting book: Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High. It gives some perspectives on addressing people's concerns when talking in a sensitive situation.

The first task is, of course, noticing when a sensitive situation exists. For example, on page 143:

A patient is exiting a health-care facility. The desk attendant can tell that she is a bit uneasy, maybe even dissatisfied.

"Did everything go right with the procedure?" the clerk asks.

"Mostly," the patient replies. (If ever there was a hint that something was wrong, the term "mostly" has to be it.)

From a merely logical perspective, "mostly" is not necessarily a hint. After all, the patient is saying that most of it went well, we all know nothing is perfect and she is not voicing any particular complaints.

Only after we add in the understanding that people tend to communicate through hints, and therefore expect us to interpret anything other than a 100% endorsement as a sign of a problem, do we see that this is a hint expecting us to ask what's wrong.

Keep in mind that NTs often communicate in two or more stages, especially with negative information. The first stage introduces the fact of negative information, and only after we let them know that we want to hear the news does the other person continue.

That does not make sense from a strictly logical perspective - after all, if you need to communicate something, why not just go ahead and say it? Especially when the alternative is to drop a hint, and then if the other person doesn't pick up on it blame him/her later? Wouldn't it be more efficient, not to mention less risky, just to transmit the information right away?

However, from an emotional perspective, it can make sense. In effect, one first asks for permission to give the information, then the other person is expected to give it, then the first person goes ahead. Logically, if the second person is expected to give the permission anyway, and if she doesn't get the hint in the first place it's her problem because she's presumed to get it, what point is the ritual? Isn't it hypocritical and worse, since it may be misinterpreted?

The point is, to people who communicate emotionally as well as logically, that the ritual communicates a broader message: I care about your feelings and don't want to press undesirable information onto you. And in turn: I care about your feelings and want to give you permission to express negative information, therefore showing you that I want to resolve your concerns - and don't want you to feel censored.

Could a group of people agree - either literally or in their actions - to do away with the rituals, assume everyone wants to have any information that he would need, and go ahead and give all the information immediately in the clearest possible way - especially since the other person can always ignore it? For example, instead of "Mostly," could the above patient say (from page 144), without the clerk having to prompt her:

"It hurt quite a bit. And besides, isn't the doctor, like, uh, way too old?"

Sure. The patient and the clerk, and maybe other people, just need a different set of understandings in mind when they think of and process this kind of information. The patient needs to feel that it's OK to give negative information even at risk of being ignored or even criticized or attacked, and needs to understand that the clerk might not get it otherwise. Meanwhile, the clerk needs to feel that it's OK for the other person to give negative information even before the clerk has given "permission". That's a matter of culture.

Thing is, it's a matter of very few NT cultures. Since it's a matter of culture and language, everyone or almost everyone needs to get with the program for it to work. (It's like computer programs - you can create the most brilliant program in the world, but if it doesn't interface well with the computers and other software people are already using, it's worthless if not worse.)

And that's not going to change in the foreseeable future. So we need to understand that NTs tend to communicate on several levels - they communicate on both a logical and emotional level, and also they give a hint of negative information first, and then wait for your (expected) permission before giving the rest.

What do you think?


CT said...

Hi, Jeff. I identify (and am identified by others) as NT, but I probably have some Aspie traits. I am married to an NT.

My partner and I are reading through your blog and enjoy it immensely. We find that many entries resonate with us as the sort of things I do or say, or find concerning. It is wonderful to share that, and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this all out for others to read and learn from.

Regarding this post, I think it is a really spot-on analysis of complex social interaction. You nailed it. Bravo!

Jeff Deutsch said...

Good morning CT,

Thank you very much! Please give my regards to your partner.

I've been thinking of adding another NT Planet feature or three, and now I have one more reason for doing so.

If you don't mind my asking, CT, how did you discover Building Common Ground?

Jeff Deutsch