Let's talk (Wise Speech 6)

A few years ago, I worked in a very unpleasant environment in a very prestigious organization. It’s the only organization where I’ve heard of anyone being formally reprimanded for writing a polite note on a Post-it note instead of a With-Compliments slip.

I lived this experience for 3.5 years. It’s a globally well-regarded organization and it was awful to work there. An equally unhappy colleague became a friend. She termed the environment toxic but from my experience it seemed pretty standard. I don’t know what makes corporate cultures the way they are but, in my experience, most work environments bring out the worst in people. Given how many people leave their workplace because their boss is difficult to interact with and how many team-building, culture creation and conflict management programs there are, I’m clearly not alone in my view that how we speak to each other in the workplace isn’t a skill most of us are good at despite interviews enquiring into our teamworking skills. So how can we speak to each other more kindly and wisely?

The Buddha made Wise Speech integral for community harmony and having studied it a tiny amount, what I can say is Wise Speech is as much knowing my own feelings as it is sensing into another person’s capacities. Wise Speech has 2 strands – the negatives to avoid and the positives to foster. The negatives are abstaining from lying, gossiping, bitching, or being divisive and abusive, and the positives are speaking what’s true, kind, spoken with goodwill at the right time. That’s a very clear theory but the guidelines are broad and not specifically targeting how to speak wisely in quotidian conversations.

One common technique focusing on the specifics is active listening, a technique which opens into the emotional landscape of others, but focusing on emotions isn’t always what’s needed for rapport. It's definitely not wise to share your true emotions with a boss.

Another way to improve interactions is to understand personality styles through psychometric tools such as the Myers-Briggs. These are useful guides about personality styles but may not be so handy during a particular interaction. Understanding personality styles helps us clarify where a person might be coming from but in other ways it can lull us into making assumptions about others “They’re an [abc] person, that’s why they react that way” and might not encourage listening in the moment for a person’s underlying concerns. Focusing on others’ personality styles also sidesteps learning about our communication shortcomings.

We need therefore to know how to interact in a moment to build rapport but in order to build rapport, we need to know the specifics of what matters in an interaction to see what makes or breaks a relationship. Above I described what’s good about the theory of Wise Speech, how active listening deepens emotional understanding and personality styles allow us understanding of others but there is also a big gap. The gap, specifically how to understand styles of interaction, is covered in the rest of the blog. Before we go there, let’s recap the journey of these blogs so far.

This is the 6th blog in a series on Wise Speech about the bricks and mortar of building good rapport. The first 5 blogs described the bricks of how to build rapport by focusing on our inner world. That is, our awareness of our levels of honesty and empathy, how willing we are to allow others autonomy and how we reflect and show others we’ve got what’s important to them. This blog changes direction from our inner world to look for interaction markers in others so we say the right thing at the right time in the right way to the right person. And here we get to the mortar of rapport building.

Rapport building combines how we each are in a single moment based on the situation, disposition and identity of the 2 people. We also need awareness of our emotional landscape in order to read others well. It’s clearly no easy feat to get it right. Chances are you’re probably under-skilled in more ways than one so if you feel a social failure, no surprises. It’s a lot to get good at.

In this series over the previous 5 blogs on Wise Speech, we’ve focused on you and how to build rapport through learning questions to develop skills with being honest, showing empathy, allowing autonomy and reflecting back so they know we get where they’re at. In this 6th blog, it’s time to start to understand how we interact with others.

Let’s look at the 4 animals representing interaction styles. As stated in Emily and Laurence Alison’s excellent book Rapport, there are four animals symbolizing ways we approach others. Two characters are oriented to social dominance (Lion and Mouse) and two on emotional intimacy (T-Rex and Monkey). As we each have a tendency to be at a particular level of social dominance and intimacy comfort, think of a compass sign with the north-south axis for social dominance and the west-east axis for intimacy. This will give you a guide about how you usually sit in interactions. North is the dominant Lion, South the submissive Mouse. West is a snarky T-Rex and East is a chummy Monkey.

At North on the social dominance axis, the Lion tends to take control to move above others. They’re good at taking charge but will break the relationship by being controlling or pedantic. When good, the Lion makes clear decisions and feels in charge with an attitude of Listen to me, I’m in control. When bad, the Lion is bossy, dogmatic and interrupts with an attitude of My way or the highway.

At South, the Mouse lets others take control and moves away from or under others. The Mouse sits back and listens but the relationship breaks when the Mouse appears spineless rather than humble. The Mouse is good when humble, patient, observant and respectful as well as being cautious of hastiness. They might say I’ll speak when ready. When bad, the Mouse is avoidant, weak and hesitant and may take the approach of You do it for me.

At West, the T-Rex is a provocative person who avoids emotional intimacy and moves against others to rub people up the wrong way. They argue, are forthright and straight to the point but can get nasty through sarcasm and attack, and it’s these punitive elements that break a relationship. The Good T-Rex is about knowing where you stand with them as they are frank, forthright and blunt Let me be clear, this is the bottom line but kill relationships when sarcastic, intimidating, silencing or insulting with Do what I say, or else.

At East, Monkey yearns to connect and moves towards others. The Monkey is a warm conversationalist and good team player but can be inappropriately intimate which will break the relationship because it feels unbounded and overfamiliar. The Good Monkey is cooperative, aware of the context and level of warmth with a sentiment of We’re a team, together we’ll do this, I’m here for you but are bad when they blur boundaries and aren’t clear if a relationship is personal or professional saying We’re all friends here.

The vertical power axis of the Lion and Mouse is about dominance and passivity so usually, the Lion and Mouse work well together because one is dominant and the other submissive. The horizontal axis focuses on how much intimacy you feel at ease with. The intimacy axis is more nuanced because most of us want to imagine we’re friendly team players who are cooperative and avoid owning our tendency to be hostile. T‑Rexes are adversarial so if you find yourself in hostile relationships, it’s a marker you’re defaulting to a T-Rex interaction style. Provocativeness is the key differentiator between the T-Rex and the Lion.

In contrast to 2 T-Rexes which become increasingly hostile, 2 Monkeys are oriented to intimacy so the relationships are usually harmonious. However, a problem arises with overfamiliarity.

To become familiar with your own interaction style, when meeting someone ask yourself:

  • Do they want me to be dominant or passive?

  • Do they want to pick a fight or stretch a hand?

  • Do I lead or follow?

  • Do I speak over and cut in or wait and be spoken over?

  • Have people told me I'm a bit blunt or provocative?

  • Have people told me I'm too friendly?

You might be surprised with the results of these questions. Perhaps you’ve always seen yourself as a submissive Mouse but after observing yourself in the coming weeks have become aware of how often you talk over people in which case you’d be a socially dominant Lion in your interaction style. Alternatively, because you talk a lot you may see yourself as a Monkey but find that people are put off by sharpness which suggests you tend towards a T‑Rex interaction style.

After you’ve started to figure out what style of interaction you and others have, here are a few simple questions to ask in a particular interaction:

  1. To be clear of a person’s interaction style. In this interaction, which kind of animal am I? And who are they?

  2. To be clear of the interaction direction and how to respond to the other person. Which animal do I sense they want me to be and will it get me the outcome I’m seeking?

  3. To be clear about your skill levels with building rapport with anyone. Can I readily speak to the good side in each of the four characters?

In summary, there are 4 interaction styles with good and bad aspects. When it comes to Wise Speech and knowing what to say at the right time, it’s fundamental to know about our intentions. We also need to understand who we’re dealing with. For our intentions, we focus on our levels of honesty and empathy and allow others autonomy so we can reflect back to them how we understand where they’re coming from. In order to understand others, we need to understand what kind of interaction style we have to quickly pick up their interaction style.

Returning to my history working in corporate environments, it was never going to work because I’m socially dominant (Lion) and too familiar with colleagues (Monkey). Although the corporate environment says they want proactive friendly people, in reality they want a submissive Mouse or, they will punish through a T-Rex reprimand as I received for writing on a Post-It Note when there were no With Compliments slips in the office.

Photo credit: George Milton on Pexels