“Darn it! Where are my frickin socks!” In our last article, Empathy in Feedback with Positive Intelligence, we discussed a great language tool that can be used to present useful feedback using the ideas from Shirzad Chamine’s book “Positive Intellegence.” Next we’re going to delve into another easy yet powerful discussion tool: the Bookmark. If you haven’t read the last article yet, I suggest that you read that one first. It will really help with your background understanding of this topic.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were having a discussion. We had gotten through the initial trigger issue, and we were working together to explore what deeper roots this issue may have in each of us. As Jeff and I were talking, I noticed that the conversation kept going off on tangents any time we approached a certain topic. While Jeff was genuinely interested in exploration, growth, and finding the core issues, his subconscious was leading us on a merry chase.
Sound familiar? Before Jeff and I could even touch on the observation I had, we needed to create a language system that could facilitate our ability to have constructive communication around it. As described in the last article, we created the code word “Socks” to point out when we have an observation to offer. This got the conversation spinning off in a new direction.
Jeff took the idea of Socks to the next level. As I brought up the idea of tangents, he made the wise observation that the issue may not be about the socks at all.
There is a really big difference between, “Have you seen my socks?” vs. “Where are my stupid socks? This place is always such a mess, and I can’t ever find what I’m looking for when I need it. Why do we live in such a dump?!?”
In the latter, it’s pretty clear that the root issue has very little to do with the socks. It might be clear to us as an outside observer that the person we are speaking with is upset about something else. Perhaps they are frustrated by clutter and mess, or perhaps it goes even deeper than that. We can see that they are being abused by their saboteurs, particularly the Judge, and we would love to help relieve that stress. By stepping in, we risk having that torrent of emotion finding a new target in us.
Nonetheless, these observations are just more socks. By approaching the situation with empathy, we can work to diffuse the bomb. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes before offering reflection.
“I can see that you are really frustrated right now, and I want to help. Can I try to help, or would you rather work on this on your own for a bit?”
Sometimes, just this little bit of compassion can be the perfect way to “reset” our minds. Just like a computer, hit control + alt + delete to start the task manager, and shut down the program that is going haywire. Tell the saboteurs that they aren’t welcome here right now. Once they are out of the way, you can ask, “Is it really the socks you are upset about, or is there something deeper?”
Smoke and Mirrors
Whoops! We did it again. We went off on a tangent. While Jeff and I talked about Socks and the deeper levels of whether the issue was actually about the Socks, we trailed off the main observation that I really wanted to offer to him again and again. There was always something to distract us.
Our saboteurs can be tricky in this way, particularly the Avoider. We are afraid that something might be uncomfortable, and we are really good at finding a myriad of other really cool or important things that need to be addressed first. Pay no attention to the topic behind the curtain. Hopefully we will get so distracted by the rest of the conversation that we will forget about that observation. If we got distracted so easily, it probably wasn’t that important anyway, right?
First we had tangents on Socks, then deeper levels of Socks, then we were going off on a tangent about tangents. There were layers of defense mechanisms, fascinating as they may be, that were keeping Jeff and I from discussing the core issue. I needed a way to flag the core issue so that we could find it again.
This realization helped us to create another language tool: the Bookmark.
When we’re in conversation and a tangent comes up that is spinning off of the potential root issue, it is time to place a Bookmark. There may be smoke and mirrors at play to avoid the root issue. It is OK in that moment to pursue the tangent, but we need to bookmark the root issue to come back to it.
This strategy gently creates awareness of the saboteurs that may be at play in that moment, and it does so without accusation or judgement.
When a moment or topic is assigned a Bookmark, it is the choice of the person receiving the Bookmark to either pursue the tangent to get it out of the way OR stay with the root issue to find the block that is obfuscating the real growth area. There are no judgments at play in this decision, as both paths can be explored in time. It’s just an extra layer of reflection for the participants to intentionally determine their priorities in that moment.
Sometimes issues have contingencies that we don’t understand until they are explored. We may need to clear the cobwebs before we can walk through the doorway. If you choose to follow and explore the tangent, we will be looping back to the Bookmark, and it may even be helpful for the person offering the Bookmark to jot down a few notes to make sure that details of those observations aren’t forgotten.
Now you have Socks and Bookmark added to your toolbox of language strategies for positive communication. Be sure to keep reading next week’s article. We’re going to talk about effective strategies for employing these strategies in the workplace.