December 23, 2022

Conversations at eye-level

Would you like to act at eye level with your fellow human beings? This is usually more difficult than we imagine. In this blogpost, you can learn how to treat our conversation partners as equals in 4 typical situations.

Your intentions are great: want to help, take an interest in others or simply have a good conversation. After a while, however, you notice that the conversation flattens out and the person you are talking to turns away or starts talking about trivialities. Sometimes this is a sign your interlocutor feels subtly belittled without you wanting it or even noticing it.

In coaching, it is especially important to make sure that treat our clients as equals. No client will come back if they have the feeling that we put ourselves above them or disrespect them in any way. In the following, I would like to describe some common traps and, of course, how to escape them.

Advice as a vice

Maria has a problem with her boss. She had sent him a text and he had corrected it, adding spelling mistakes that were not there before. She gets terribly upset about it and reports it to her best friend Louise. Louise replies, "Why are you even showing the text to your boss - you can decide on your own, can't you?" Maria feels misunderstood and belittled, and Louise had only meant well!

"Advice is a vice" is an old saying from the coaching world. When our interlocutors tell us about a problem, we often have the impulse to help solve it. If we then come up with something supposedly brilliant, we do not hesitate with our "help". This may show the assumption that we would have known better and that the other person, by not doing what we suggest, has brought it on themselves. So, a double belittling of the other person.

So instead of jumping in with our well-intentioned advice, we could get into the habit of first appreciating the efforts of our interlocutor by first acknowledging the difficulty of the situation and then asking about the interlocutor's attempts or ideas to solve it:

- Wow, that sounds difficult! This would make me mad, too!

- Good thing you stayed cool with him!

- What have you already tried?

After that, you can always ask if the person you are talking to would like to think together about how to solve the situation.

Not scolding is enough praise - not all praise is valuable

Boris is a passionate hobby cook and has attended cooking classes all over the world. For a party at his friends' house, he quickly threw together a Thai soup. Doris tastes the soup at the party and addresses Boris: "The soup is delicious - just like Maggi!" Boris smiles with effort and thinks to himself, "Oh my God, dehydrated soup! No wonder Doris' taste buds are this numb!"

Here again: well-intentioned does not equal well done. Praise from someone who knows little about our field doesn't land well with us. Praise also allows me to place myself above another person. I allow myself to judge instead of expressing my appreciation.

If I want to express my appreciation, I can "praise" better by staying with the specifics, sort of describing my impression and then taking an interest in the other person and their performance:

- Wow, Boris, this soup is delicious! I like this sweet and spicy so much!

- Tell me, how is it prepared if it's not a kitchen secret?

- Where did you learn to do that?

This will certainly lead to more honest connection.

Not every question is a good question: Othering

Ines lives together with Gudrun. They are planning their wedding in a few weeks. Herbert is not very familiar with same-sex relationships and he curiously asks, "So who's the bride and who's the groom?" and "Do you both wear a dress then, or how is that?" Ines and Gudrun are invited to explain many details that a heterosexual couple would never have to answer. They feel like they are "not normal." Herbert only meant well and simply wanted to show interest.

Herbert is "othering" Ines and Gudrun, making them into people not belonging to us. Sadly, this happens often to LGBTQ people, people with a different skin color or those who visibly do not correspond to the majority society. The people asking the questions usually don't want to exclude, they want to learn. Still, it feels like the questioners are putting themselves above the questioned, "I'm normal, you're not."

So what can I do if I don't want to exclude, but simply express my interest?

- First, I keep my curiosity in check and respond with the appropriate emotion - joy at a wedding, sadness at a death....

- Then I wait to see what people tell me without me inquiring.

- When I'm curious, I just ask the questions I would ask if they were people from my own group.

- If I am still curious, then at an appropriate moment I can ask the person privately if they would like to tell me something about their country, their religion, their community.

Taking charge of the conversation

Lisa comes home and is in a bad mood. Jonas, her boyfriend, would like to go to the movies, but not with a bad-tempered Lisa and wants to help: "Lisa, what's wrong?".  Lisa mumbles something into her non-existent beard. Jonas probes: "Come on, tell me!". Lisa sighs, "Oh, it didn't go that way at the office." Jonas doesn't let up, "What happened, tell me!" Lisa looks annoyed: "No, leave me alone!". Jonas doesn't understand the world anymore. He only wanted to be nice!

I guess being nice didn't quite work out. Jonas thinks he knows how to help Lisa: you have to talk about problems in order to solve them. Lisa, however, just wanted to forget all the crap. By setting the direction of the conversation rather vehemently, Jonas puts himself above Lisa: he knows what needs to be talked about to make things better.

If Jonas asked Lisa how he could help, the conversation would be more a conversation between equal partners:

- "Oh, what's going on - do you want to tell me?"

- "Oh no, I just want to forget it."

- "Okay, anything I can do for you?"

- "Just give me a hug."

Tada - movie night saved.

I hope you can avoid these four traps in the future. If we keep thinking about how we can act in partnership, we are sure to understand each other better and foster more equal relationships - have fun trying them out.  

If you would like to chat about these or similar topics, ask questions about our classes or otherwise simply connect, why not come to one of our free meetup and exchange sessions.

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