T-Rex - why the dinosaurs became extinct (Wise Speech 7)

"Leave me alone, Baldrick. If I wanted to talk to a vegetable, I would have bought one at the market."

Blackadder’s snarky comment with Baldrick typifies the bad T-Rex character of interpersonal interactions as stated in Laurence and Emily Alison’s book about building rapport. When good, the T-Rex clearly states where a value is breached but even so, it’s best seldom used. When bad, the T-Rex is snarky, acerbic, and prickly as Blackadder often is in the BBC comedy by Rowan Atkinson. The bad T-Rex is never a wise way to speak and the good T-Rex is only Wise Speech when spoken by a highly skilled communicator with a purpose to draw a line in the sand on a specific issue.

Wise speech is one of the Buddha’s 8 core elements of well-being. It’s divided into positive forms of speech (kind honest words at the right time) and negative forms (anything that’s not kind honest words at the right time). As a rough guide, speech that shows dignity for both parties is good and speech that doesn’t is bad. Blackadder’s retort to Baldrick could hardly be described as a dignified wise way to speak.

There’s no doubt that Wise Speech is easier said than done, especially at work where we’ve come together because we haven’t yet won the lotto. It’s no surprise then that at work, there’s plenty of Unwise Speech. It’s not easy to be kind when frustrated with colleagues, interacting with a difficult boss, working alongside colleagues who slander, bitch, form cliques or are incompetent. And perhaps you’re irritated by poorly written emails, being overwhelmed by meetings, tired of repeating yourself, dissatisfied with where you’re at in your job on a contract role, sitting in a hierarchy which is competitive and always looking for cost cutting, and feeling pressured to produce more and more with less and less.

Added to these are the personal challenges of partners, kids, friendships, family, debt, overpriced accommodation, managing time commitments, drugs and alcohol, struggling to sleep, exercise and eat well. In addition, there are mental health issues, neurotypical diversity, sexism, racism and bullying. It’s no wonder divorce and depression are on the rise.

It’s why Wise Speech isn’t easy even though we know it’s the right thing to do. It’s why communication books such as Rapport by the Alisons are beneficial. Here’s a snapshot of the authors’ research topics and an overview of the interaction styles they’ve observed. Laurence Alison studies terrorist and criminal interviews to evaluate which interaction styles elicit credible information. Emily Alison works in social services with families and violent offenders. The book has 4 characters personifying 4 interaction styles. Each of the 4 characters has a good and bad side. T-Rex is one. The other 3 characters are the Lion, the Monkey and the Mouse. The Lion wants to be in control, the Monkey wants to be your friend, and the Mouse wants to withdraw. I’ll expand on these three characters in the following blogs as the focus here is on the T-Rex.

Nonetheless, it’s worth comparing and contrasting the T-Rex and the Lion because they can look and sound quite similar as the differences are subtle. It was when writing this blog that the difference between the T-Rex and the Lion emerged. In essence, the T-Rex wants to be in charge of themselves while the Lion wants to be in charge of others. The T-Rex is solitary and wants you to back off whereas the Lion wants to be in charge. A Good T-Rex interaction is about standing up for a value. A Lion wants to get others to work for them.

I’ll recap what’s covered above before going onto how to build rapport as a facet of Wise Speech. Wise Speech is about speaking with candor at the right time which isn’t easy when we live with the pressures in contemporary society. One of the 4 interaction styles stated in Rapport by the Alisons is the T-Rex, a solitary inflexible character who will readily stand up and be counted. The T-Rex differs from the Lion in that the Lion wants to be in control of others whereas the T-Rex wants you to stick to your values.

Good T-Rex behavior is direct, forthright and upfront. Good T-Rex behavior has a viable place in interactions as long as it’s used sparingly because a Good T-Rex is about standing your ground. What makes T-Rex a bad strategy even when on best behavior is its inflexibility. According to the Gottman Institute, influenceability is central to a high-quality relationship. T-Rex, whether good or bad, is inflexible and therefore uninfluenceable which deteriorates a relationship. When a person is unyielding, there is little space for others and therefore no joy for others. The Bad T-Rex interaction style is best never used. It’s provocative, attacking, sarcastic and silencing. It’s a socially defensive stance which undermines others in order to feel better – as in Blackadder above.

The main questions with the Good T-Rex are when and how to stand up and be counted. The right time is when you are very clear about the exact issue at hand and have collected appropriate evidence that breaches a spoken or unspoken value. The right way begins with presenting the specific facts and evidence, and sticking to this throughout the conversation in a dignified manner. Second, state your perspective. Third, conclude with an implication. If you’re a manager bringing someone into line, and the evidence conflicts, mention the conflicts but don’t get into personal attacks about whether a person is hypocritical or stupid, because we’re all a bit illogical and daft at times. And don’t be dictatorial or manipulative.

Knowing the preferred interaction style is central for building rapport but there’s a bit of prep to do before engaging with others. To build rapport, according to Emily and Laurence Alison the cornerstones are to HEAR (Honest, Empathy, Autonomy, Reflect):

  1. Be honest. Be objective and direct when communicating your intentions or feelings, asking:

  2. What’s the outcome I’m seeking here and am I the right person to engage in this conversation?

  3. Am I sticking to specific facts, being direct, calm and dignified? Or am I being tricky, superior or competitive?

  4. Show empathy. Understand someone based on recognition of their core beliefs and values.

  5. What’s it like to feel like them?

  6. What does this person care about and value?

  7. Allow autonomy. Emphasize other people’s free will and right to choose whether to cooperate.

  8. What options are possible for this person?

  9. Reflect. Identify and repeat back those elements that are significant, meaningful and tactical to help guide a conversation towards the goal. There are 5 reflective techniques to build rapport and for the Good T-Rex, the Reframing strategy is best as it draws out the good intention but frames it in a new light.

Here’s an example of how to step through the good T-Rex. An employee says they’ve heard a colleague is repeatedly bitching about them which you know is a form of bullying.

  1. Gather the evidence.

  2. Engage with your emotional responses to be clear about the outcome sought.

  3. Arrange a meeting with the person who’s bullying.

  4. During the meeting, speak in a calm manner throughout, stating the evidence and implications of continuing the behavior.

  5. If the person becomes defensive, ask the person about what's important to them and reframe the issue so it fits with their value.

Getting a T-Rex to shift gears can be difficult but it can be done. The central requirement is to be steadfast and kind without being cloying or false. That Baldrick remained Blackadder’s aide is because he didn’t engage with the interaction style. It’s the only way to do it. Whatever you do, don’t emulate Blackadder. Blackadder’s a bad T-Rex and should never have come into creation. There’s a good reason the dinosaurs became extinct.

Photo credit: cottonbro