Thursday, November 1, 2012

Toward a More Helpful and Civil Discourse

There is a poisonous phrase I hear often, a phrase that seems to immediately and negatively affect any calm, reasoned discourse.  Over the past couple years I've been tracking it, both in my speech and in that of others.  I find that more often than not, this phrase is the turning point of a discussion.

Usually, this phrase is used when you’re at your most vulnerable.  You’re trying to solve a problem, and just as you get the description out, you’re interrupted.  Interrupting is bad enough, but this particular phrase, said this particular way, can be devastating.

And I’m not pointing at specific family or friends.  I’m not pointing at specific work relationships.  This phrase seems to be baked into our collective culture, now just part of the standard language we use to communicate.  Once you notice it, you’ll see and hear it everywhere (sorry about that, but it’s for the best, I assure you).  You’ll hear it while watching TV.  You’ll catch yourself using it.  That’s the best, because then you’ll know what it means and feels like when you say it.

Well, kpd, couldn't you just tell us what that is?

And that’s the point.  Introducing “couldn't you just…” into a conversation is one of the more harmful, insidious things a speaker can do.

It’s not the entire phrase that condemns it to being so awful.  It’s that word “just”.  In this context, it’s synonymous with “simple”.  It’s demeaning and insidiously so.  It’s the same as calling the other person stupid or simple.  It’s saying to them that something is really obvious to you and that they should have thought of it themselves.  There’s a judgment there that what the speaker is about to say is simple, and that you’re making your problem more complicated than it needs to be.

What’s worse is that the people speaking often shake their head while saying it, as in disbelief that you didn't think of something so obvious.  And often their tone and inflection conveys the incredulity that they can even be talking to someone who didn't think of that approach or solution themselves.

And the worst part about this phrase is that anyone who says it to you means well.  They really do.  They actually are trying to help.  And they may have insight you need.  The obstacle to communication that it introduces is the immediate reaction you have to defend yourself.  “Well, of course that was the first thing I tried, but that didn't work.”  “Well, if I was an idiot, I wouldn't have thought of that, but since I’m not, here’s why your ‘simple’ solution doesn't work.”

So here’s the fix.  Catch yourself saying it.  And you will – we all seem to.  Catch your inflection.  Catch yourself shaking your head.  Feel the judgment and disbelief that someone right in front of you missed something so obvious.  And you won’t be able to help yourself all the time.  It’ll just come out.

But if you manage to catch yourself before letting it out of the bag, change what you say.  Make it a new habit.  The problem is that judgmental little “just”.  Consider the following:

“Couldn't you have just tried to work out a sharing schedule?”

“Couldn't you have tried to work out a sharing schedule?”

The second is less harsh and less judgmental.  There’s an improvement here, however, that you can and should try:

“Could you have tried to work out a sharing schedule?”

The last works well, and avoids the negative contraction.  It’s amazing how much nicer a simple rephrasing that loses no meaning can sound!  There are other ways to ask the same questions and ensure that ideas get exchanged:

“What solutions have you considered?” – doesn't offer a solution; lets the listener get the simple ones out of the way on their terms
“What about trying a shared schedule?” – offers a solution, but puts the emphasis on the solution, not the speaker.

I’m sure there are other great ways to phrase these same questions, too.  If there are ways, I would hope you’d find some way to tell me.  Couldn't you just leave me some comments?