Friday, July 12, 2013

Drama Coach

Regarding Drama Free?, Sree wrote: 
I’m always on the lookout for effective tools and techniques to deal with drama generated by others. Among the tools I draw from: 
  • Be a good listener to understand both the explicit and unspoken messages being delivered. 
  • Reflect back to them my understanding in a way that they know their message was received 
  • Take nothing personally 
  • Know what to address now and what to table for later 
  • Know how to negotiate 
  • Act with integrity when a third party is involved 
  • Interrupt skillfully when the message starts getting repetitive 
I’d love to hear what yours are. A bigger question is how to detect and defuse drama that one generates oneself. Hmmm...
Sree's put together an excellent set of tools for managing drama, or for that matter, pretty much any human interaction. The first two, listening and reflecting back, are often combined into something called active listening. Active listening along with taking nothing personally are the prerequisites for the rest. If you've mastered active listening and never take anything personally, you may never need to employ the other tools.

As I think about it, taking nothing personally is a prerequisite to active listening. If you take things personally, then active listening can easily morph into informed criticism. Informed criticism does not achieve the same results.

As I think about it, Sree's listed another prerequisite to active listening; it's acting with integrity. I'd morph that a bit to just plain old have integrity, though, due to popular use, that phrase may be misleading. I don't use the word integrity to refer to morals or ethics. I use it to refer to consistency. Integrity means that what you see is what you get. Whether you're with this person or that, whether you're alone or with others, you're always the same you. There are no unresolved conflicts in your definition of you. You're fully integrated. So, rather than saying, "having integrity", let's say, "being integrated".

So, in active voice we start with 1) be integrated, 2) take nothing personally and 3) listen actively. The next three (4) know what to address now, 5) know how to negotiate and 6) interrupt skillfully) are specialties that build on the first three.

To be integrated and take nothing personally is basic to who you are. They form the foundation on which you are built. Once you've acquired these skills (yes, they're skills), they can serve as an early warning system that lets you know when something is awry.

When you've learned to be fully integrated, even the smallest lapse in integrity feels strangely off. It's not unlike what happens when you give up sugar and sugar substitutes. What used to taste good, now tastes too sweet. You taste sugar in all sorts of foods that never used to taste sugary. If you find yourself saying this to one person and that to another, you don't feel quite right. Something is off-rhythm or out of tune. You start to feel greater discomfort in not saying something that's on your mind than in saying it.

When you've learned to take nothing personally, it's (among other things) much easier to say what's on your mind, because what you have to say is never charged with judgment or defensiveness (a specific response to negative judgment). You can talk about what you're thinking matter-of-factly. Finding yourself getting annoyed, anxious or defensive sets off alarms; you know that you've taken something personally.

Listen Actively
Active listening, listening to someone and reflecting back to them what you've heard, is pretty straightforward. However, it's not always easy. It's a skill to be developed. The great active listeners not only have skills, but they also have a style all their own.

The easiest way to practice is to find some who will confirm or deny your having got it.
1. The speaker says something.
2. You say it back to her in your own words, "So what you're saying is..."
3. The speaker confirms your statement on two levels:
a) Did you in fact say what he said, and
b) Did you say it in a different way (or just repeat what he said).

If you were to do nothing more than to get to the point where you always received an affirmation on both counts, you'd see amazing changes in your interactions with people.

Interrupt Skillfully
The next step in developing active listening is timing. There are times when you don't want to interrupt and times when you do. As Sree points out, someone's becoming repetitive can be a time when interrupting skillfully may be the best course of action.

For me, the biggest challenge in knowing when and how to interrupt comes when someone never completes a thought; he speaks without ever using a period. In some instances, it's part of his process in getting to the heart of the matter, in others it's a way to avoid the heart of the matter.

The easiest way I've found to address this is to preface the conversation with the fact that I'm going to be interrupting from time to time to make sure that you're following the speaker. I may even designate a signal such as raising my index finger to indicate that I want to ask a clarifying question.

The speaker begins to ramble and you raise your finger. He stops and I ask, "So what you're saying is..."

This has four great effects. First, it ensures that you're really understanding what she has to say. Second, it allows the speaker to hear what she's said from a different person's perspective1. Third, it allows you to codify the ramble into a complete thought. Fourth, hearing ones ramble unbiasedly converted into structured thought can have a remarkable effect on a speaker, i.e., it can be wonderfully clarifying.

Make It Your Own
Once you've learned to listen actively (as confirmed by the speakers) and how to interrupt skillfully, it's time to have some fun with it by bringing your style into the mix. If you actually use your words when playing back someone has said in your own words, it's hard to avoid stylizing your listening skills. Other elements of style include playfulness, e.g., helping someone to see everything he's saying from a brighter perspective or even making a game of the interaction) and illustration (e.g., sticking with a specific metaphor or analogy as you play back what you're heard.)

Try It
I could go on, but I think Sree's list provides a great place to start. Besides, the more specialized tools aren't all that effective if you haven't mastered the basics.

So, how well do you listen actively? What would someone to whom you've listened have to say about that? 

Happy Friday,

This only works if you're actually listening well.


  1. Reading through Sree's list had me thinking about the drama feedback loop: the times when I respond to someone else's drama with drama of my own, creating even more drama. The set of people who get to participate in the feedback loop is pretty small (those really close to me). My execution of the skills in the list is less automatic with those people in the presence of specific triggers. On days when I'm particularly aware, my solution is to slow myself down. If I'm slow to respond, it's more likely that I'll tune into the skills I already have.

  2. Faith: your comment triggered a thread in my mind which has actually been a post nebulously brewing in my head for months now. And since your last post was about 10-minute writing exercises, here goes:

    I've often wondered about mastery, or maybe it's solidity - when do I say I have mastered something or am solid about something - not a skill, but a distinction, a concept, even a (behavioral) decision. It goes back to the concept of cognitive change we discussed here a few months ago. There are some things we do 100% of the time; I never put my hand in the fire or dig a pin into my skin; I always look both sides when crossing the street, and so on. But for things like dieting, exercising, drama generation, writing, motivating with happiness, most of us haven’t made that cognitive change. We have our own exceptions (family), weaknesses (chocolate), blind spots, and so on. So I came up with a metric. If I’m doing something I ostensibly want less than 80% of the time, the decision/distinction hasn’t yet been integrated into my belief system. At 95% of the time, I typically call it good, while still retaining the choice to go for 100%.

    PS. this reminds me – I haven’t yet done Teflon’s second homework on What I Want.


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