A Debatable Bad Habit
From my early 20s on, I found kindred spirits in those who enjoyyed sparring with words. I don’t mean rage-filled confrontations of screaming and yelling; I mean lively debates about things such as politics, philosophy, religion, etc. I would often find myself even playing devil’s advocate so I could try on others’ points of view. I frequently had these debates with some of my best friends, sure to divorce the discourse from emotion so as not to hurt one another’s feelings. Not everyone enjoys this type of verbal sport. And these battles of intellect can become even more unpalatable for some when they turn acrimonious.
As I began my professional career in the early 2000s, I often used my debating skills to outmaneuver unwitting opponents at work, sometimes with success and sometimes without, but never with serious consequences. However, several years ago, I attempted to strike up a debate during a meeting with my then-superior among his subordinates. The topic at hand was the revamped mission of our 20-person division, about which I had some concerns. The leadership never sought the division members’ opinions on the new mission direction, so we hadn’t had a chance to weigh in. Because my supervisor and I had a friendly relationship, I jumped to the conclusion that I could air my concerns in the open, have a full-throated debate with him, and perhaps resolve my worries by modifying the division’s mission through my will, intellect, and persistence. In hindsight, for me to presuppose such an outcome was foolish. I began to verbally jab my supervisor as a subtle invitation to debate, but he quickly became very defensive, resistant, and moved on to another topic. In that moment, I took his reluctance to debate the issue as a sign that he was simply unprepared to defend the mission.
My unsuccessful attempt to draw my superior into a debate and his obvious discomfort and resistance made me appear aggressive and intimidating to some of my colleagues. The matter of the division’s mission was never brought up in the group again, and I can’t help but think that it was due in part to the fear that I would try to stir the pot anew were it to be brought up. The sad fact is that there were flaws in the mission and the division never had a chance to have a productive dialogue around the issue, thus making it the elephant in the room every time we met. In short, questions and concerns about the division’s mission were left dangling and unresolved, leaving much confusion and consternation in its wake.
With some distance from this event, it is now easy for me to see how wrongheaded my approach was. Before this incident, I had been tacitly rewarded at work for such aggressive behavior, and it became my default mode of communication when dealing with conflict and when stakes were high. Because of the positive reinforcement I had received for many years before the fateful meeting with my supervisor and our division, I developed a bad habit of using an aggressive communication style and could not see alternative approaches.
While there are a time and place for aggressiveness and debate, I became so used to that style of communication that when the time came for a more mature approach to discussing our division’s mission with my supervisor, I didn’t know how else to proceed. The lesson I learned from this experience is that when selecting a mode of communication, it's critical to always have the end in mind and let that guide your communication. Do you want to win a debate and be perceived as the smartest person in the room, or do you want to reach a level of understanding and clarity in the service of everyone involved?
Reaching Higher: Your Internal Voice and Internal Listening
Taking a step back and accepting and end that is in the service of reaching a higher plane of understanding requires that you develop your internal listening. Most people have well-developed internal voices but often move to actions based upon their internal voices without giving their internal listening a chance to hear and process what they're saying to themselves. The ability to hear your emotional signals and make a choice about how you respond to your internal voice is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. This skill is crucial to becoming a productive communicator because being honest with yourself about what your internal voice is saying and not being a slave to it means having developed a frame of mind in which you can recognize the limits of your knowledge and seek an understanding that transcends your self-interests and current level of comprehension.
In the case of challenging my supervisor over the mission of our division amidst his subordinates, while there may have been a modicum of wanting to achieve a higher understanding in the service of everyone, my real motivation was to feed my very hungry ego, which led to a debate mode of communication. I wanted to display intellectual superiority more than I wanted for the group to gain a greater understanding. And in doing so, I damaged my reputation by coming off as a bully and compromised my supervisor’s authority. Ultimately, because of my actions, the greater understanding that the group obtained was that I was a troublemaker. In the past, I had been a useful troublemaker and rewarded for it. But as a newcomer to this division, my trouble making ways were unexpected and unproductive. To be sure, the leadership did make mistakes in rolling out their new mission, both regarding the substance of the mission and in their approach to developing the mission. I knew this was the case, and frankly, I was looking for an opportunity to make a point and "speak truth to power". But my efforts were counterproductive and self-serving. Speaking truth to power and being self-righteous are not the same thing.
Modes of Communication
There are many modes of communication, and people usually shift among them without much thought. These modes of communication run along a continuum. Many factors influence your preferred mode of communication and much of it based on Jungian theories of human behavior, including introversion or extroversion, the desire to reach closure or the desire to keep things open-ended, and whether you approach things more from a thinking or feeling point of view. Under normal circumstances, you tend to select the mode of least resistance on the continuum of communication, based upon your personality type.
Many people often don’t give much thought to where they are on the continuum when they're communicating, because they have not developed their internal listening and do not have a productive end in mind. The ability to be in tune with what your internal voice is telling you together with developed internal listening gives you insight into your motives and can disrupt unproductive behavior. This is a form of mindfulness (i.e. the ability to accept what is happening in the moment without being a slave to it). This lack of mindfulness as it relates to communication is, in my opinion, the leading cause of dysfunction within organizations. Lack of communication, unproductive communication, and disruptive communication all contribute to an organizational culture of confusion, frustration, and disengagement.
Organizations are highly dynamic constructs. For organizations to operate productively and do so in a sustained way, there must be a culture of communication that is predicated upon individuals being mindful about the ends and mode of communication.
The Color-Code Method of Communication
There are many books written on the topic of communication, days-long workshops on the topic, and in-house training seminars that teach productive communication. People even hire personal coaches to help them improve their communication. I am in favor of all of the above, with one caveat. Sometimes techniques for productive communication are presented on a scale of magnitude that leaves one wondering whether achieving productive communication is even doable. I know I have often felt this way after reading books and attending training and seminars on the topic. How could I possibly remember everything explained about communication in this or that 300-page book or after 40 odd hours of workshops and training? The fact is no one is ever going to be 100 percent productive at communicating 100 percent of the time. With the goal of helping to simplify the concept of productive communication, I’ve developed a construct that is aimed at simplifying things by using a color-based shorthand of green, yellow, and red on a continuum of communication.
NOTE: I have deliberately chosen to use the phrase "productive communication" over the more common phrase "effective communication" because the former simply means that the communication in question achieved the desired effect–which may or may not be of value–whereas the latter indicates that the communication has produced something that adds value.
Green: Green communication is low-stakes and includes everything from friendly chitchat with strangers to conversations with friends and family about issues of relative unimportance. Green communication is critical to building rapport with others, getting to know people, finding out basic information, catching up with loved ones, and passing along necessary data. Green communication is where most people spend the preponderance of their time. While green conversations can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating, they are free of debate and strong disagreements. Green communication is essential to building and maintaining trust and rapport. Green communication is essentially conversation that includes two or more people.
Yellow: Yellow communication can be summed up as dialogue. Dialogue is different from conversation in that the stakes are higher, and there may be disagreements and differing points of view. Yellow communication takes place when people put their egos aside and engage in an exchange of ideas and information in the service of achieving a higher understanding that benefits everyone (i.e. collectively producing something new of value out of communication). Yellow communication requires mindfulness, emotional maturity, and highly tuned internal listening because its goal is not to outwit your co-communicators but to build on each other's ideas, which demands a willingness to set aside some beliefs and let go of personal agendas. If dialogue is to take place, some people will have to acquiesce, and others will have to accept their acquiescence with grace. Dialogue has no individual winners or losers; when dialogue takes place, and a higher plane of understanding is achieved, everyone wins. Dialogue is mindful communication, which means that you are sufficiently in tune with your internal voice and listebing so that you have the agency to choose not to respond to impulses that come from a place of self-defensiveness, arrogance, or fear. When you are aware of the visceral emotional and physical signals of defensiveness, anxiety, or ego at the moment that you are experiencing them, then you can choose to accept those feelings in the present moment and not respond to them by lurching into the red zone on the continuum of communication.
Red: Red communication ranges from debate to argument. The objective of red communication is to defeat your opponent. Red communication tends to be acrimonious and only (sometimes) productive when done in the confines of the legal system, politics, or a debate club. Engaging in red communication can sharpen the intellect and improve the skills of finding logical flaws in opponents’ arguments and making articulate points extemporaneously. Red communication also includes unproductive adrenaline-fueled verbal fights that can cause long-term damage. The objective of red communication is to win, which does not lend itself to achieving a higher level of understanding in the service of everyone. Yellow communication has the potential to achieve higher levels of understanding because it is the collective knowledge and wisdom of the couple or group that results in something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Because red communication is binary in that you either lose or win the argument, collective knowledge and wisdom don't play a role, thus making it unlikely for higher understanding to be achieved as no one person has a monopoly on knowledge and understanding. And often people win debates and arguments not because they're right, but because they're better skilled at debating and arguing.
The place on the continuum where the most productive communication takes place is in the yellow zone, which corresponds to dialogue. Because of environmental conditioning—i.e. competing with others for grades in school, victories in sport, promotions at work, and a cultural bias in many Western societies for politeness—people tend to dwell in the red and green zones on the continuum of communication. People try to remain polite and maintain harmony but are willing to become passive aggressive, openly aggressive, and even nasty if they perceive a threat.
How to Get to Dialogue
Dialogue is predicated upon the premise of seeking first to understand. And since everyone knows nothing about almost everything, there is no shame in seeking to understand. When dialogue occurs, information is not only given but received in such a way that it shapes how others see things toward the goal of higher understanding. Not everyone will always be equals in dialogue—e.g. one person may come into the dialogue with more knowledge. Regardless of who has more knowledge, all parties should be humble both in giving and receiving information. Sometimes shared information will be challenged with contrary information; this is a normal and healthy part of dialogue, so long as it is done mindfully.
The first step toward productive dialogue is wanting it. If your preferred modus operandi of communication tend toward the red zone and you have no desire to temper that trait, dialogue will be an impossibility. By the same token, if you shy away from any conflict and prefer harmony, you may find receiving information that challenges your assumptions and opinions to be uncomfortable. One of the most productive side effects of yellow communication is that it acts as a safety release valve, especially for those who tend to dwell in green communication and can eventually become passive aggressive when they disagree with someone or something but are unwilling to sacrifice harmony to have dialogue. It also helps people who lean toward red communication to be more constructive about how they air their concerns and opinions, instead of being openly antagonistic and unproductively negative. I know this from firsthand experience.
There are seven things you can do to prepare for and engage in the productive communication mode of dialogue:
- Before you engage in yellow communication, check your frame of mind. Yellow communication requires that your frame of mind be on seeking first to understand, and not seeking first to be understood.
- State your intentions about wanting to reach a higher level of understanding together before starting the dialogue.
- Write down your thoughts beforehand. Writing down your thoughts helps you to be prepared to better articulate your point of view, know in advance those areas where you lack knowledge, and identify your “hot spots” (i.e. those things that might trigger a leap into the red).
- Sometimes a dialogue can get off on the wrong foot or take a bad turn. That’s okay! Don’t be afraid to either try to restart the dialogue or even postpone it. It’s far better to bail out of a dialogue that is turning acrimonious than it is to white-knuckle it. But, if you do this, you must return to the dialogue at some point. To not do so can cause things to fester, setting the stage for an unproductive argument or passive aggressiveness.
- Make frequent use of “I” statements and take ownership of your thoughts and feelings, instead of placing the responsibility for what you think and how you feel on others. Accusatory language is likely to be met with a defensive response.
- Remember that in dialogue, you and those with whom you are dialoguing are not opponents; you are collaborators in seeking and finding higher understanding through the productive exchange of knowledge and information.
- Be genuinely curious. Being curious will open your mind up to asking non-leading questions and productive exchanges of knowledge and information.
Every color of communication has its place. Most people dwell where they are comfortable, which tends to be in harmony (even if that harmony is false), or aggression. While I freely acknowledge that yellow communication requires being more in tune with your inner voice, developing your inner listening, and putting your ego aside, it is a mode of communication that deserves much more of our time and attention in the workplace than it's currently getting. At first, engaging in dialogue may feel uncomfortable, stilted, or forced. But as you practice this style of communication more and more, it will eventually come to feel natural. Just like most things, you have to practice it to get good at it. You’re never going to be perfect, so a little bit of patience and self-compassion go a long way in helping you to stick with the practice of dialogue to achieve a higher understanding in the service of everyone.