Contracted Conversations

A colleague: "I don't understand it. I lived with my wife for eight years before we were married and she never cared what time I got home from work. Ever since I put on this wedding ring, though, she expects me there at six o'clock on the dot!"

Me: "Didn't you read the EULA on that ring?"

If you have ever installed software you have almost certainly clicked "I agree" on the End User License Agreement the setup program presented during the installation process. If you are like me, you read the full details the first time, and maybe the second time, and then you decided that every EULA is a bunch of legalese which says "If anything goes wrong it's not our fault" and haven't bothered reading another EULA since. Some day this ignoring is likely to bite me.

If you have ever listened to someone else and then responded you have effectively clicked "I agree" on the EULA which that conversation implicitly presented. If you are like me, while you never consciously realized that EULA existed you did unconsciously believe that a response was required and that there were rules specifying how you should and shouldn't respond. Some of these rules were likely explicitly given to you ("Don't say anything if you can't say something nice") and others you gave to yourself ("I can't talk about feelings at work"). As with the software EULAs, I used to not bother thinking about all this, and it bit me every day.

Of late, however, especially after experiencing the Satir Interaction Model at AYE, I am attempting to become fully conscious of the full details of each communication I have. Although I still forget to pay attention much of the time, each day I remember to study my conversations a little bit more than I did the day before. Another year or so and I may manage to pay attention throughout one entire conversation!

When I don't remember to study a conversation as it happens I can dissect it after the fact. I find this especially helpful in situations where the other person and I talk in circles. "What information are they not getting that they require?" I ask myself. Once I come up with an answer I go back to them and Check It Out. Sometimes I'm right, other times I'm wrong, and in either case I have another opportunity to practice my communication skills.

Another aspect of communication to which I am learning to pay attention is what the other person desires to get from the conversation. Recently my wife set out to tell me about everything that had gone wrong at work that day. In times past my part of the conversation would have been rife with problem solving. This time, however, I remembered to ask at the outset "Do you want me to problem solve or empathize or something else?" She told me she wanted empathizing, not problem solving. I am happy I asked!

If you are looking to improve your communication skills, I heartily recommend Naomi Karten's book Communication Gaps. Her book is chock full of questions to ask, things to think about, and (perhaps most important) stories which made me laugh out loud. I stickie-noted many a page as I read it and I will reference it often I am sure.

I am finding working to stay aware of how I communicate and experimenting with changes to make my communications more likely to be more clear to be hard work. So far the results seem worth it. Presenting people with a EULA before I talk with them is something I won't probably consider though. <g/>

*** Want a fun job on a great team? I need a tester! Interested? Let's talk: Michael dot J dot Hunter at microsoft dot com. Great testing and coding skills required.