Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 6;   February 6, 2008: Communication Templates: I

Communication Templates: I

by

Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.

In person-to-person communication, patterns of all kinds abound, but templates are special. They're widely used within the culture, and cultural norms re-enforce them. For instance, in my culture, when I hold out my right hand to someone and say, "Hello, I'm Rick Brenner," a very common response is to take my hand and say, "Hello, I'm George Bush." Well, only if George Bush is your actual name — otherwise most of us would expect to hear your name.

Rabin and Arafat shake hands

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Leader Yasser Arafat shake hands in Washington, on September 13, 1993, with U.S. President Bill Clinton looking on. Actually, President Clinton did much more than just look on, as is evident in videos depicting the event. Not all templates are purely conversational, as in the examples in this article. In the video, Clinton clearly establishes the handshake template by shaking hands first with Rabin, then with Arafat, and then gently nudging the two of them together until Arafat extends a hand to a somewhat reluctant Rabin. Did Clinton manipulate the two men? Judge for yourself. Photo courtesy Global Policy Forum.

Did you find the above example a wee bit humorous? If you did, perhaps you expected the person's actual name, not "George Bush." The strength of that expectation reflects the strength of this template.

Although templates aren't problematic in themselves, how we use them can be, if we use them to manipulate others, or if we reflexively adopt an offered template. In this Part I, I'll examine how we use templates to manipulate others. In Part II, we'll look into some more toxic examples.

In the workplace, some common manipulative uses of templates are persuasion, controlling others' emotions, and stifling criticism.

Persuasion: "You wouldn't want us to do that, now would you?"
This template makes objection difficult. It rests on a previously constructed patently unappealing scenario, which isn't usually what the anticipated objection was about.
To respond to this tactic, try replying in the form, "I certainly would not, but I think we have other options. I'd like to explore them."
Controlling others' emotions: "Now, now, no need to get so hot under the collar about this."
Although templates aren't
problematic in themselves,
how we use them can be
Here the manipulator tries to force a denial of the form "I am not angry," which usually makes the denier look foolish. Remaining cool at all times does help, but even that won't prevent some manipulators from using this template.
To respond, step out of the template. Humor is especially effective, because it demonstrates that your emotions are under control. For example, if you aren't wearing a collar, try, "But I'm not wearing a collar, or at least, I wasn't when I walked in here."
Stifling criticism: "Be reasonable; trust me on this."
In this template the manipulator attempts to equate disagreement with distrust. Since most of us are reluctant to express distrust, expressing disagreement is difficult within this template.
Reject the template: "I do trust you. I also disagree with you. It's because I trust you that I hope you'll want to explore our disagreement."

The strength, variety, and prevalence of templates vary with culture and microculture. Within cultures, there are variations with social status and gender. And although a template is present in your culture, you might not ever use it. Do you see any templates in use in your own life? Which ones do you use yourself? Go to top Top  Next issue: Communication Templates: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more on Communication Templates, including some that are even more problematic, see "Communication Templates: II," Point Lookout for February 13, 2008.

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

Carrot and stickIrrational Self-Interest
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty Questions: II
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
A hug about to happenUnwelcome Workplace Hugs
Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
Children playing a computer gameHigh Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call "high falutin' goofy talk." We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid.
Publicity photo of American entertainer Bert Lahr, promoting his role as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 feature film, The Wizard of Oz.What Is Hypophora?
Hypophora is a rhetorical device that enables its users to deliver simple messages with enhanced power. But it has a dark side. The people who read or hear those messages tend to assess them as having more merit than they do.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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