Talk to me about…

EDIT: Sal graciously linked to me, so if you’re coming here from her lovely links page, I hope you find this useful.  Also, feel free to stick around!

Yesterday Sal talked about minding your own business over at her blog.  And while she brought up a really good point- the issue of having boundaries when in conversations with people (especially those you are not or are no longer close with) and realizing that your judgment of someone from the outside is almost always limited- I felt myself continually going back to a different, but related issue.
People just don’t know how to talk to each other fairly, diplomatically, purposefully.  Too often we just say whatever pops into our head, not thinking about the other person and where they come from (in the situations that Sal discussed sometimes the speaker/questioner doesn’t even KNOW the person) and definitely not thinking about if what we are saying will be useful for them.
I promise when I say this, I’m not advocating being a person who is so afraid to speak that you stop stating your opinion and thoughts.  But it’s possible to give your opinion on virtually anything in a respectful, useful way.
One of the most useful classes I ever took in college was my choreography class.  I use the skills I learned there daily.  People who took the class will probably read this and laugh and assume I’m sucking up, but I’m being honest.  We would make dances, show them to each other, and then give each other feedback.  Useful feedback.  We spent just as much time learning how to give and take feedback as we did learning different choreographic principles. 
At first it was annoying.  We couldn’t say “I liked it”- it was forbidden.  But really, how useful is it when anyone says “wow I really liked it” and doesn’t give a reason why?  It may be nice to receive the compliment, but it’s about as useful when someone says something is awful and doesn’t give a reason why. 
Instead we used Liz Lerman and John Borstel’s book, “Critical Response Process” to learn how to go about the process of giving and getting feedback.  I highly suggest reading it (it’s really short and fun to read), especially if you’re in a creative field, or if you’re in any situation where you need to give and receive useful feedback to improve whatever you’re creating. I use elements of this process frequently. 

click the image to read more about the book and find purchasing information.
Basically we let the creator ask questions first, and then we’re invited to respond to the questions she asks.  We don’t rush in with our ideas about the dance, because maybe the creator is trying to work on something specific that she needs addressed first.  After those questions are asked, we get to ask neutral questions: “Talk to me about your use of color in the costumes” instead of “Why were your costumes so loud???”  Then the artist responds “My inspiration was a circus.”  Responder notes this answer- ok so loud colors are appropriate.  Notice that if the responder had not asked about the colors, and instead criticized them, the artist would have stopped listening, because the criticism shows that the responder has no desire to understand the artist’s reasoning. 
However if the artist responds “oh, I don’t know, it’s what I found lying around the house, I don’t think it mattered that much.”  After getting through all the questions, this responder would think back to the artists’ answer and say “I have an opinion/suggestion- would you like to hear it?”  If the artist says yes, then you might say “The colors seemed really loud to me, it was a little distracting, especially since I thought the theme of your dance was quite somber.  You might consider moving to more muted colors for a cohesive look.”
Yes, this is a negative comment, technically, but it’s framed in a way that is USEFUL to the person hearing it.  It’s honest and tactful as well.
So let’s imagine that we used this process (albeit, abridged) in everyday conversation.  First, note that this process happens among people who are invited into it.  The artist we are responding to is aware that we’re going to address them.  In some sense, they know each other.  This is why I think any discussions of personal matters should be left among close friends.  So the situations Sal was talking about, where a stranger or acquaintance comes up and makes a judgment, should never happen, because, since they don’t know you, they would not be invited into the discussion. 
So if you’re not invited to comment on someone’s life/decisions/whatever, don’t.  Even if you are their friend.
Now, once you’re invited… let’s say you are worried about your friend.  She seems depressed.  And to be quite honest, it’s annoying because she has the perfect job, husband, home, salary, family, etc.  You could say,
You: “Why are you so depressed all the time?  Your life is so great.  I’d be happy all the time if I were you”
My guess is you would alienate said friend.  And she wouldn’t tell you what’s really going on.  Or she would and you would feel stupid. 
Friend: “Well, for your information I found out a month ago that my mother has a year to live, so I guess I am a bit upset.”
You: “ummm…” looking for a hole to dive into to die.
Instead you could go with:
 You: “Talk to me about how you’ve been feeling lately.”
No judgment, no opinions, just a question.
She can answer, and if you’re close I’m betting she’d open up, and your friendship would benefit.  If she doesn’t answer specifically, that’s ok because you’ve shown interest.  If she doesn’t answer you could also offer this:
“Well I have a thought, would you like to hear it?”
If she says yes… “You seem really down lately.  Is there something we could do together that might cheer you up?”
Again, while it is a negative thought, “you seem down,” it’s only after previous discussion, and it’s said in the light of trying to make things better, not out of judgment.
It’s probably obvious, but this process is not perfect.  But even its imperfections are so much more useful than everyone running around and spouting off judgments and opinions.
Imagine if instead of your employer simply reprimanding you, he took you aside and went through this process to discuss your performance.  Instead of feeling down and out, you’d know what to fix and you’d know that he valued you because he’s trying to make you better.
Imagine if instead of telling your student “this book report is unacceptable,” you spoke to them in person saying “talk to me about your first sentence: ‘Moby Dick is the worst book ever written’- what makes you say that?”
Imagine if instead of being told by your husband that he hates the way you did your hair, he asked if he could give his opinion, and after saying yes he said “I think a haircut like Jennifer Aniston’s would look amazing on you.” (ok, we’d probably take offense to that one depending on the situation… but hey, husbands are allowed their opinions too!)
How much more useful (and kind) would we be to each other if we put as much thought into our judgments as we do into the things we make/do/decide/plan?

5 thoughts on “Talk to me about…

  1. Yes. To all of this. Sal's post got me thinking yesterday of all the times this has happened to me in the last year — about whether I've lost weight, am going to have kids and what ethnicity I am (ugh, that was mostly at my internship).

    Your choreography class sounds like it was so useful in preparing everyone to be better critics. My editorial writing class was the same way — we all had to talk openly about subjects and elaborate on our opinions. We couldn't just openly bash a classmate's work — how heartbreaking and rude is that? But explain diplomatically what we thought could have been better, and highlighted what we thought was very good.

    I wish more people in the world had some kind of training that would teach them to be nicer and more considerate when thinking about sensitive subjects.

  2. Glad to know that we're not the only school practicing this, JoAnn… and glad to see it in the journalism field! I remember realizing how valuable my training was when I went to visit my college boyfriend. He was musical theater major and I was able to watch a class where they were working on songs to sing for a showcase, the class watched and helped pick what of 3 songs they should sing.

    It was awful. People were just like “I didn't think that was good.” or “That was amazing.” Most didn't give any reasoning, nor any sensitivity. It was weird to me.

    I think half the battle is being sensitive, and the other half is saying something that's useful. As much as I hated not being able to say “I liked it” when I really liked a dance, I was really glad that people didn't get to say that to me. They said what worked and what didn't so that I could know what to build on and what to throw away. “I liked it” gives me almost no information. And it was nice that people couldn't give me a criticism without qualifying it. Kept the discussion very safe. and productive.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post! What a wonderful and insightful wasy to communicate and critique. I work in Architecture, and I know my office wold be served by this kind of dialogue.

    Not to mention just communicating with friends and loved ones.

    Lots to think about! I will be back for sure.

  4. As a teaching assistant, I get to practice giving criticism on a near-daily basis, in bulk. One big constraint there is time–I try to give all my students explanatory critiques, rather than just a hash mark through something they've done incorrectly–but when you're grading 160 pages of something in three days, there are limits. Particularly when the student isn't invested in the process, and turns in what he or she knows is substandard work.

    And students definitely could use some practice in incorporating critiques. Too often the first response is so defensive that it shuts down communication, and that's not strictly a function of how the critique is offered, although that is a part of it. I think if people started working on critiques and critique incorporation much younger in life, like preschool or grade school, we'd see a society of happier, healthier, better-adjusted adults.

    I say that about a lot of educational issues, though. The number one problem is that we don't have enough teachers; everything else hinges on that. Siiiigh.

  5. Madeline P- thanks so much for reading and commenting!

    kristophine- I'm totally with you on students having to be there with you too. That's what was so great about my experience learning these techniques: It was a part of our training. We spent a lot of time on what seems like it should be fairly self-explanatory and/or intuitive, but it's just not a lot of the times. I do remember that when people in the class would get defensive or apathetic the feedback/critique became difficult to continue, and seemed irrelevant.

    I think a process like this one should be taught, at many different levels, (while I love this particular process, I'm not married to it) but the question would always be “when?” and whose responsibility is that?

    I don't have the answers, just the questions 🙂

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