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Unformatted text preview: IZ Chapter 5 Transforming Casual Encounters Through Dialogue Most dialogues do not take place in committees but arise spontaneously in an immense variety of encounters} These more informal encounters show dialogue in a different light than dialogue in meetings. Often they are more personal and revealing. In this chapter I report on four such dialogues— between two corporate CEOs, a teacher and a parent, a social worker and her client, and an older male manager who is mentor to a younger female manager. The Old Bull and the Young Bull The first example is a brief dialogue that helps to clear up a misunderstanding that threatens to wreck the personal and business relationship between two executives, a retiring CEO of a multinational communications company and his younger successor. The dialogue takes place on themorning after the old CEO’s retirement dinner, where the new CEO, a close per- sonal friend, made a moving speech that brought tears of ap- preciation to the older man’s eyes. ZZ 74 THE MAGIC 0F DIALOGUE Now, the morning after, the old CEO is chairing his last of- ficial meeting. Everyone in the room knows he faces his retire- ment with trepidation. A company man, he has no hobbies and no interests that compare in intensity with his dedication to his job. Everyone knows that the board of directors has turned down his request to postpone his retirement another two years, until he reaches age seventy-two. They had already granted him one postponement; they felt it unfair to his suc- cessor to give him another. For weeks the retiring CEO has been hinting to his succes- sor that he would like to be considered for a special assign- ment—to preside over a special ad hoc committee to review f5; the future governance of the company. He now brings up the . " question of‘ the committee assignment before the full meeting. 3 An uneasy silence falls over the roOm. All present look to- -._ ward the new CEO to hear his verdict. The new CEO suggests ‘ that they postpone the decision. Suspecting that the new CEO 3' ‘ is resisting his appointment, the older man feels a spasm of angry resentment. He assumes that his old friend thinks he is {3 over the hill and incapable of handling the job. Bitterly, he re- 2 f i calls his friend’s gushing praise the night before and silently accuses him of hypocrisy and betrayal. J The younger man is nursing his own set of assumptions. He knows the retiring CEO has trouble letting go and suspects " ' that he wants the governance committee job to maintain con— trol from behind the scenes. He meant every word of praise he I. heaped on the retiring CEO the night before, but he has been waiting a long time to run his own show and feels he won’t be able to d0 50 if his fermer boss is' constantly second-guessing 4' him. The meeting peters out in an atmosphere of tension. Every- 5. one leaves the room except the old and new CEOs. Because they have worked together for so many years and have had Transforming Casual Encounters Through Dialogue 75 such good rapport in the past, the old CEO swallows his bit- terness and asks, “Wayne, am I correct in assuming that you think I’m not up to the job of managing the governance com- mittee?” The new CEO bursts out laughing. “If you think that, you must think I am the world’s biggest hypocrite.” The old CEO says dryly, “Something like that crossed my mind.” His tone is calm, but he is still agitated inside, though Wayne’s casual attitude has begun to reassure him. Sensing the older man’s discomfort, Wayne puts his arm around his shoulders and says quietly, “No, Lewis, I don’t think you are losing it. My fear is that you would do too good a job and I would never get a chance to run the show on my own terms. I need my chance to try out my own management style.” Now understanding, the old CEO says to his friend, “You were assuming that I can’t let go and that I would be con— stantly getting in your way? Is that what your hesitancy was all about?” “Bingo,” says Wayne. The tension slowly dissipates, and the old CEO admits, “I don’t understand why, but I’m as anxious about this retire- ment as I’ve ever been about anything in my life. Frankly, the effect on you was the furthest thing from my mind.” “I know,” says Wayne. The rift has been healed. Objectively, not much has changed. The old CEO is still apprehensive about the future. The new CEO has yet to make up his mind about whether to give the older man the assignment he wants. But somehow ' everything has changed. The old CEO’s self-confidence has been restored. His paranoia is gone. The new CEO sees the older man in a new light—as less daunting and more vulnera- ble than he had thought. The ultimate decision, whatever it may be, is now likely to be made for the right reasons. i I- If £3 76 THE MAGIC or DIALOGUE This fragment of personal dialogue exhibits many of the lessons and strategies I brought forth in the last few chapters. It shows, once again, that dialogue doesn’t occur automati- cally; you have to make it happen. There is always some ob- stacle that needs to be addressed before dialogue can begin. In our other examples, the obstacle came from subculture con- flict. That is not at issue here; both participants are immersed in the same subculture. Here the obstacle is that the preoccu- pations of the two men are miles apart. Each is focused on his own concerns. Here it is the difference in individual interests that gives rise to the assumptions that trigger the misunder- standing between them. It doesn’t really matter whether differences in interests or subcultures cause misunderstandings. In both instances, erro- neous. assumptions lead to misinterpretation of the motives and meanings of other people’s actions and words. You may not be able to stop people from leaping to wrong conclusions, whatever the cause. But you can, with trust and goodwill, clar- ify misunderstandings through bringing assumptions into the open. ' In their dialogue the two executives were able to draw on their long history of trust and goodwill. That is why the mis- understanding between them surfaced—and dissipated—so quickly. Withdut this history, the process would have taken much longer. But the dynamics would have been the same: first, someone "needed to take the initiative and break the ice. The older man did this with his question. Then someone needed to be empathically responsive and to give ground. The younger man did this, once he recognized his old friend’s anx- iety and discomfort. Note that the back-and-forth between the two focused almost exclusively on ' assumptions—their own and each other’s. , This example also illustrates the ability of dialogue to trans- Transforming Casual Encounters Through Dialogue 77 form transactions into relationships. In this instance, a routine business transaction—a committee appointment—sidetracked a personal relationship. It was the older man’s belief that the new CEO was treating his committee appointment solely as an arm’s—length business transaction that enraged and frustrated him, especially in the light of the effusive tributes the younger p man had paid him the evening before. The dialogue between the two put the transaction back into the perspective of their long relationship. In doing so, it was a profoundly healing ex- perience for the older man. In effect, it gave him back the self- confidence that the prospect of an abrupt rupture with his life’s work had undermined. This episode also illustrates how a narrow issue can precip- itate a much broader one. The narrow issue was a committee assignment. The assignment turned out to be highly charged emotionally: it involved both the older man’s crisis of confi- dence and the younger man’s concern with his ability to come into his own as CEO. The dialogue between the two men dealt with the broader issue, not the narrower one. But a de- cision still had to be made about the committee assignment. The new CEO' was prudent to postpone the decision. The di- alogue succeeded in dissipating its tense personal and emo- tional overtones, but many practical considerations of , importance to the company remained to be resolved- This episode leads us to a new strategy that the next two examples also suggest with even greater force. A GESTURE OF EMPA'I'HY The next two fragments of dialogue, each between two women, underscore a strategy indispensable to initiating dia- logue. 72 78 THE MAGIC OF DIALOGUE Parent and Teacher The mother of a high school junior is in conference with her daughter’s English teacher. The mother is nervous. She is not an assertive person, and she hates confrontation. She remem- bers her own reluctance when she was a high school student to have her parents complain to the teacher. But she feels she must urge her point. Her daughter has received a D in Eng- lish, and she is afraid that it may jeopardize her chances of getting into an Ivy League college. Besides, the low grade was for spelling errors—in the mother’s eyes, a trivial matter. She explains to the teacher, “Susan has her heart set on be- coming a doctor, Ms. Bishop. She will be taking premed courses like chemistry and biology in college, where spelling isn’t that important. Besides, she’s a techie, and she always uses the speller on the computer. That should cover most of the situations where good spelling is needed.” The teacher, sitting bolt upright in her chair and frowning, responds with a strong tone of annoyance: “Mrs. Kramer, they all use the computer speller. I explained to them at the very beginning of the year that I thought it was terribly im- portant for them to know how to spell well enough for those inevitable occasions when they have to write something, say a note of condolence, and they cannot use a computer. I told them several times that I was going to grade for spelling. I don’t want them to leave this school semiliterate and embar- rassed.” After a pause she adds, “Excuse me if I sound a wee bit querulous, but you are the fOurth parent today who is up— set about her child’s English grade. I was a bit severe in my grading, but I felt I had to make a point of it.” There is a long pause in the conversation. Then Mrs. Kramer says, “Oh, God. What an ordeal it must be for you to have all of us boomer parents barging in to complain, so sure _;a. j 3‘ : Transforming Casual Encounters Through Dialogue 79 we are right and the teacher is wrong. I wouldn’t have done it if the stakes for Susan weren’t so high.” Abruptly, the tension is dispelled. The teacher leans forward in her chair and smiles warmly. The mother’s tension is also lifted. Soon she and the teacher are involved in a dialogue that leaves them both feeling better and that without changing Su- san’s English grade produces a strategy that will give Susan an opportunity to earn a better overall grade for the record. It was an act of empathic listening that changed the trajec- tory of the conversation between parent and teacher. The par- ent responded to the teacher’s lament by putting herself in the teacher’s shoes, seeing the situation from the teacher’s point of view. Grateful for the empathy, the teacher’s attitude of weary hostility dissipated, and she in turn found it possible to empathize with the parent’s dilemma. Social Worker and Client A social worker trained in the methods of Homebuilders (an organization experimenting with new conceptions of social welfare professionalism) makes a call on a troubled client, a single—mother welfare recipient. The mother is harassed and almost beside herself with concern about her out-of-control teenage son. As soon as she sees the social worker, she turns away from her in frustration. “The one thing I don’t need in my life,” she says, “is one more social worker telling me what to do. Not with this house being such a mess. I need to get my house cleaned up.” Unruffled, the social worker responds matter-of-factly, “Do you want to Start with the kitchen?” The social worker takes off her jacket, and without fuss the two women begin to work together to clean up the house. Afterward, the two start a conversation that quickly SZ 80 THE MAGIC or DIALOGUE evolves into dialogue. By its conclusion, both women not only feel that they understand each other, but they also find time to discuss an action plan for the client to address her problem with her teenage son’s acting out.1 . This same social worker had a very different experience with her former employer, an agency that adhered to more traditional forms of social work. She recalls that in her first year with her old agency, she responded to another client in a similar fashion. She also helped her clean her house as a way to establish rapport and narrow the social distance between them. Then, too, she had positive results (which was why she is familiar and comfortable with the approach)—-except that in the earlier instance, when she returned to her office and de- briefed her colleagues,‘the more experienced social workers reacted to the incident with hostility. They told her angrily that her behavior was unprofessional. They said that in cross- ing the line to assist her client in doing her housework, she had made a blunder that, if generalized, would make their work virtually impossible. They argued that she was overpaid and overqualified to do that sort of housev'vork, and in addi- tion it violated her professional obligation not to get involved in the lives of her clients. At the time she felt humiliated and confused. She left the agency after several unsuccessful efforts to engage the others in dialogue on how to reconcile their standards of profession— alism with the need to establish the relationship of trust with clients that she felt was indispensable to their ability to give service. In this example, the gap between the subculture of the social worker and that of the welfare recipient was more easily bridged than the gap between her and her former colleagues. Older and newer conceptions of professionalism in social wel- Transforming Casual Encounters Through Dialogue 81 fare were driving a wedge between coworkers who appeared to belong to the same subculture but in fact did not. The social worker was able to establish a base of trust with the client by a simple deed that demonstrated equality and empathy. Minimal trust with her coworkers was not estab- lished, however, with the familiar result of dialogue failure. The lesson I draw from these examples is the importance of what I have come to think of as “a gesture of empathy.” A gesture of empathy is probably the closest thing to an “open sesame” for dialogue. If in the heat of a discussion or debate you want to initiate a dialogue, your best chance lies in a ges- ture of empathy, especially if it is unexpected. , The teacher expected an argument from Susan’s mother (that very day she had been involved in arguments with three other parents). Quite unexpectedly, however, instead of an argument, she heard Mrs. Kramer empathize with her while directing criticism at herself. The welfare client also expected an argument from the social worker. Instead, she received a simple offer of help—an offer that narrowed the social dis- tance between them. The social worker’s act of helping her client clean her house also makes the valuable point that yOu don’t always need words to express empathy. It can also be expressed in action. When in the example of the two CEOs, the younger man put his arm around the older man’s shoul- ders, that gesture underscored his words of empathy. We therefore come to our ninth strategy. 9Z 82 THE MAGIC or DIALOGUE STRATEGY . W Initiate dialogue through a gesture of empathy. The fact that gestures of empathy often come as a surprise tells us something about our society. In our transactions with one another, we are so used to wearing defensive armor that , expressions of empathy are unexpected—and disarming. And since disarming is an indispensable prerequisite to dialogue, a gesture of empathy is the quickest and easiest way to start a dialogue. Young Female Executive and Male Mentor My final example in this chapter comes from a mentoring ex- perience between an older male and a younger female execu- tive. Mentoring relationships between older and younger men are a long-standing custom.‘ Similar relationships between women executives are newer but also well established. But the idea of mentoring relationships between men and women in management is a more novel—and trickier—phenomenon. As women increasingly move into the upper reaches of management, many are finding it possible to get the mentor- ing they need from older male executives, even though these relationships are always sensitive. Most of the publicity goes to their sexual overtones, but in practice men and women of- ten deal with the sexual side of the relationship better than with the more mundane psychological aspects. Here is a fragment of a dialogue that helped to solidify such a mentoring relationship. Bob is the marketing VP of a large food company, and Au- drey is the ad manager for the frozen vegetables division. She has been with the company since she received her MBA five Transforming Casual Encounters Through Dialogue 83 years ago. Bob is more than twenty years older than Audrey, happily married, and the father of four boys. Audrey 15 re- cently married and is postponing having children until she 15 further along in her career. Bob sees himself in the young woman: her strong drive for success blends comfortably with her ease in dealing with people and her desire to please. Over the past year, Bob has gone out of his way to help Au- drey navigate her way through the maze of corporate politics and has also supplemented her training in advertising by giv- ing her a better understanding of how to take other compo- nents of marketing such as distribution, packaging, and pricing into account. Audrey is a quick learner and grateful to Bob, whom she admires and talks about constantly to her husband, who, though not jealous, is bored with the subject of Bob and his virtues. Bob and Audrey have a comfortable relationship, with Audrey doing most of the teasing about Bob’s choice of loud colors in shirts and ties. One afternoon, Bob asks Audrey to pick up something for him the next morning at a store she passes on her drive to the office. She doesn’t respond right away. Thinking she hasn’t heard him, he repeats his request. She then says in a snippy tone of voice, “I heard you the first time.” Bob feels a rush of irritation but says nothing. On her way to the office the next day, Audrey does what Bob asked her to do, but both find themselves stiff and formal with each other. Several days later, having coffee together while discussing a possible new ad campaign, Audrey says, “I’m sorry I snapped at you the other day.” Bob answers, “I wondered what was going on. It was so unlike you.” “I did pick up what you asked me to,” Audrey says quietly. “You haven’t said, ‘Thank you.’ ” LZ 84 THE MAGIC or DIALOGUE “Then it’s my turn to apologize,” Bob says quickly. “I do thank you. It was thoughtful of you to do it, especially since you didn’t want to.” “What makes you think I didn’t want to?” she asked. “Well,” he said, “your reaction the other day. Clearly, I had asked you to do something you didn’t want to do. You .. don’t like to do personal errands for me. You probably find . it sexist and demeaning. I don’t blame you. I shouldn’t have asked.” Audrey explains to Bob that she doesn’t mind doing things for him at all. In fact, she is grateful for the opportunity to give something back. But she says she has always hated the feeling that she is being taken advantage of. Something 4 about the way he had asked made her feel that way, and that ; was what she was reacting to, not any reluctance to do the ‘ errand. . He quickly denies that he was trying to take advantage of her, citing many reasons why that was not the case. She reas- 5 ._ sures him. Then she says, “I guess I was responding to you ...
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