An effective conversation is like an artful dance. In fact, some dances are actually art in and of themselves when done well. Consider ballet and ice dancing on skates. Both are art at its finest. The word ART is an acronym for Authenticity (A), Rhythm (R ), and Timing (T).
Authenticity is an honest search for understanding. We each have stories about the world. This includes our opinions, our views and our positions on matters large and small. Our stories reflect our way of seeing the world. Our view of the world is based on the history and background of how we experienced the world – what we have seen, heard, felt and how we interpret this information or data. How we see the world is also based on the meanings we have given and the conclusions we have drawn from what we experience. Therefore, my story is different from your story. Authenticity is about being willing to listen to another person’s story with a genuine interest in learning where the other person is “coming from.” Why might they think, believe or feel the way they do about the subject of discussion? Habit Five in Stephen Covey’s book: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” It is about listening with empathy from a place of curiosity rather than from your own opinion, history, perception or viewpoint. This is the basic step of the dance of communication.
We tend to enter conversations with a position, opinion or viewpoint about the subject matter. Being intelligent people, we believe/know that our position/viewpoint/opinion is the right one. We typically proceed to present our case with the intention to gain agreement from the other person. When they agree, we have made a connection. If that agreement is not forthcoming, it is not unusual for us to continue attempting to persuade our opponent, as they have now become, to our side. An example of this is Jerry, who believes wholeheartedly that spanking children in any form should be abolished. He became very upset when he learned that one of his two friends he’d known since grade school engaged in corporal punishment of his children. In talking with the third friend, he decided to discuss the issue.
Jerry: “I can’t believe that Jim beats his kids. If he is not careful, someone will call child protection services and have him arrested. I think we should talk to him.”
Edward: “Well, I don’t think they will arrest you for turning a child over your knees and rapping them a few times on the bottom.”
Jerry: “It’s still corporal punishment and it should be outlawed!” That stuff causes permanent emotional scarring. People who beat their kids are ruining them for life. It is a wonder you don’t think so, after all those beatings you got when we were growing up.”
As soon as his friend opened his mouth, Jerry interrupted. His friend just shook his head as Jerry became more and more upset. Jerry had a position that he was not about to relinquish. In conversations where there is disagreement, how willing are you to hear the other side? Being authentic means having a genuine desire to learn. It means to question your purpose for having the conversation. It is about shifting from one of being right and fighting for your position to being open and willing to learn from the experience. In the dance of communication, authenticity is like learning the steps.
It’s one thing to learn the steps; it’s another to tune your ear to the rhythm of the music. For instance, Waltz music requires a box step. If the music is Big Band or Jazz, Benny Goodman or Miles Davis, you must listen and do a different type of dance with sways and an occasional dip. You might even inject a pause here and there. One of the nuances of rhythm is that you not only have to recognize the words, you also have to acknowledge the feelings behind the words. This allows your partner to feel truly understood. Rhythm is about content and emotions. Research shows that 80% of communication is non-verbal. It is not just the words. An example is when Janice came in late. The boss looked at her watch then back at Janice over the top of her bifocals for ninety seconds straight. When she got no reaction, she pointed at her watch and asked sternly, “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Janice smiled, looked at her watch and said innocently, “ I have nine-thirty.” There were definitely feelings involved here. Remember Jerry. He had strong feelings attached to his opinion about having spanking abolished.
Timing is a third issue. In dancing, how you respond to your partner is different when you dance the cha-cha versus how you glide together for a waltz. Timing in communication has to do with when to bring up these conversations and what you anticipate the reaction to your message might be. Should you bring up an issue in public as soon as a situation appears? Or would it be better for you to wait and discuss it in private? Also consider if your message might be better received if it came from you or a third party to whom the individual may be more open. Timing also has to do with waiting until your partner feels completely understood before discussing your own opinion. What would you learn if you chose to listen rather than talk? It is about who leads when. It is also about balancing listening with advocating for your own position or viewpoint.
After learning the steps, mastery requires practice. The first and best practice in becoming a better communicator is listening to understand. Does this mean that once learned, you won’t have missteps – that you will never step on toes? Not at all. However, in a dance, when you step on someone’s toes, you have to stop and apologize. Whenever you misstep, go back to the basic step: Listening with Empathy.
Many of us practice dancing by ourselves in the bedroom. We get used to leading. Then we must make adjustments when we get a partner. If we are to dance, both partners must lead and follow. That means both listening with empathy and advocating respectfully for our position. We can’t always lead. However, in a dance of communication we must agree to work as partners.
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Cathy Harris’ expertise lies in cultivating people connections. She is a professional keynote speaker, trainer, consultant and author who specializes in helping people make the critical connections that improve relationships and increase their productivity and profits.
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University Southwestern Louisiana
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