Planned Optimism: Conversation stalled? Use a mirror or lay a brick
There is a profound moment I experience when I am talking with a work colleague and I suddenly have nothing to say.
The topic of conversation might be about the weather. Or, the dialogue may be an important discussion related to a decision that affects both of us, and the company.
What happens in that pause, in that space where another person is waiting on my response and I have lost my words, is where my experiences with empathy and improv training are helpful.
So, the panic surfaces in my mind as I search for the reason I paused. I may be done making my point. Or, perhaps I have decided my point was incorrect and am struggling how to proceed, back peddle or concede.
Occasionally, I may only be distracted with thoughts far from the immediate topic, distracted by the inexplicable sudden appearance in my memory of a funny line from a John Mulaney comedy special. I’m frozen. And worse, I’m now smiling for reasons that make no sense in the context of the discussion.
What I decide to do next, after running out of knowing what to say, is what defines the moment, the results and me. By engaging empathy and the lessons learned from the art of improvisation here are the options that will guide me to a positive outcome.
There is no substitute for the information expressed by an image in a mirror. The reflection always tells a story that includes a mood, an emotion and at least one perspective of those looking back.
When I am at a loss for words a simple, powerful choice I make is to reflect the words of the other party. They may be the exact same phrases and I repeat them back with a preamble of “You are saying…”
Often I find myself restating their words in similar words, but that is not nearly as effective. I may miss nuance the other person specifically intended in their choice of words and changing them is no longer a mirrored image.
I may agree or disagree with what was recently said, but in this case the simple act of repeating what the other person has said offers tremendous impact.
Mirroring demonstrates empathy. Repeating another person’s statement and matching their emotion and energy level is a terrific expression of “Yes, I hear what you are saying and understand your point of view.”
Often the reply back is I am treated immediately to having my words mirrored back as well. A respectful exchange of empathy has now occurred. Time has now passed as well and my brain has no doubt found a thread on which to continue the conversation.
LAY A BRICK
The activity required to build a wall can be described as laying bricks neatly on top of each other. Each brick is a specific element that when added moves the wall one step closer to completion. Bricklayers can see the brick, touch it and know that more bricks can now be placed next to and on top of that one.
In the art of improvisation the act of laying a brick means the performer will add a statement, a fact or an emotion that moves the scene forward in a way that everyone on stage can see, feel and understand.
The brick is not a question you ask someone else to answer in that moment. Asking that fellow actor or work colleague a question means you are passing responsibility for laying the next brick in the wall to someone else.
“What do you want to do?”
That question never helps a wall get built. The answer is always “I want more bricks added to the wall!”
The power of laying a brick is you step up. You present the next item that will serve to build that wall. The brick does not need to be bigger or better than other bricks. In that moment I am at a loss for words I will settle for any brick so long as it is honest to what I am thinking.
So, my next statement could be about the line from that comedy special, because it likely relates to the conversation or the memory would not have surfaced.
I may decide to lay a brick that provides an additional, specific fact, emotion or perspective so that my colleague may choose to then place a brick next to or on top of that.
Or, I may state I have said everything I need to say, offering up a final brick in a gesture that for my purposes the wall is complete
The communication tools of mirroring and laying a brick have helped me navigate through that sensation of being a deer in headlights. When the conversation stalls I appreciate knowing these options guide me to an an empathic response.
I rehearse these techniques. I plan the use of communication tools in order to provide hope for a positive outcome.
That’s planned optimism.
NOTE: this article first appeared on EmpathicWorkplace.com