Friday, November 05, 2010

Subject/Object (The Art of Negotiation)

I present to you two scenarios:

The first: my mother is concerned about another member of our family that she very much needs to talk to about a private matter. This person rarely calls or answers the phone, so my mother had sent a letter. This is all well and good, except that she didn't entirely stay on topic--she told me that she'd sent along books on managing diabetes (this person is diabetic), and other reading material for "improvement".

The second: This one is very familiar to Americans. The missionary who knocks on the door--whether they be Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, or some other group seeking to point out the error of your ways and "save" you, usually in the name of Jesus Christ.

It occurred to me that these scenarios have the following things in common:

1. An individual who reaches out to someone else in a caring attempt at communication.

2. An utter failure because they are objectifying the other person.

Let me see if I can explain. In both cases, the individuals reaching out (my Mom, the missionaries), are often doing so out of genuine caring. My mother genuinely cares about this person's health and well-being. The missionary often really believes what they are saying, and are also genuinely concerned. However, in both cases, they are approaching their subject by pointing out how they are wrong and how they must change. It doesn't matter whether the person is really wrong or not. What would you do if someone tried to tell you how you were wrong? Most likely, you would be on the defensive--you would either tell them to mind their own business, or dismiss them entirely and walk away with no response. Such an approach does not open up dialogue. It ends up coming across as demeaning or accusatory.

My mother does this kind of thing, and from what I hear from other friends, she is not alone in this "motherly" trait. About 15 years ago I had gained a fair amount of weight. Every time I saw my mother, she would eyeball me with this worried look, and shake her head. She would bring me a copy of a new diet she'd found in some health magazine or book. She was doing it "because she cared". However, when she did this, that was not the message I got. The message I got was, "you think I'm ugly and malformed--and obviously stupid". Yes, I know--she was not saying that at all. But that's how such gestures come across.

Returning to the second scenario--famous occult author Lon Milo DuQuette created a great little piece of animation about such a scenario. In this video, the character being preached at (presumably representing Lon) doesn't walk away, but explains to the proselytizer why they are offensive. And he says it very well, so I'll just let you watch it:


This brings me to the fine art of negotiation. Back in the day, I was a co-shop steward for a union, and occasionally had to negotiate gripes and grievances on behalf of employees with management. I knew the management of the place well--some were caring, some were not, but in general, if they could get away with avoiding things like raises and promotions, they would do it. Sometimes there was nothing you could do; they were within their rights as employers. Other times it was questionable. The stiffed employees were understandably angry.

I successfully negotiated a couple of these situations, and I would have gotten nowhere if I'd used the approaches in either of the above scenarios. If I had walked into administration and insinuated that they were trying to cheat the employee, I would have had the door slammed in my face. Even if my statement had been true, you don't ever negotiate by putting management on the defensive. Instead, my approach was to tell the administrator that I was there on behalf of the union, and that someone came to me with a problem. I assumed that the employee must be missing some piece of information, and I would appreciate if they could explain the situation to me, so that I could explain it to the employee. This approach works 99% of the time.

This works because it does 3 things--1. it validates the person you are talking to as an intelligent, thinking subject, 2. it doesn't dismiss or invalidate the claim of the griever--it assumes instead a miscommunication that needs clearing, and 3. it gives the employer an "out" if they have really done something wrong. In at least one case, they said, "let me look everything over, and let you know." Sure enough, they claimed an "oversight", and said they would fix it immediately. I wasn't so sure it really was an oversight, but I was not going to press that issue--the employee had finally gotten what they needed, and the employer saved face. If you're bent on getting revenge or making them look stupid, you will probably lose everything.

This is not about being a flatterer or being dishonest. No matter how flawed you think someone else is, chances are they think they are just fine. Employers are no different. You won't win if you set out to invalidate someone else's point of view. A lot of people have forgotten about this--particularly TV news analysts and most of Congress. How do you find common working ground with someone you're treating like an idiot--an idiot because they won't see things your way?

Because let's face it--no one is "perfect", everyone makes mistakes--and sometimes, it's not a mistake, simply a life choice or worldview that we can't understand because we wouldn't choose it for ourselves. If you spend your time judgmentally telling people what's "wrong" with them and how they should fix themselves when that input was not solicited, you're going to have a lot of trouble being taken seriously. And you probably won't have a lot of friends. Families are a bit different; mothers often see this kind of lecturing as their appropriate role. But it doesn't change the fact that people will be defensive if you approach them critically.

No comments: