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A Better You | What’s in a Word?


ABetterYou2What you say, and how you say it, are as important as what you do

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Having a nice day? As teachers and studio owners, you’ve probably noticed that the quality of your day has a lot to do with the people you deal with. Dance education means lots of face-to-face interaction, and that means running the gauntlet of myriad personalities and their varying emotional states. When customer satisfaction is a necessary goal for survival—as it is for anyone involved in teaching dance—it’s important to work toward positive outcomes in both business and casual interactions.

It’s easy to forget that clients and employees often have their own agendas, which might be different from your own. All of us can learn from Mahatma Gandhi, the premier model of self-control in extremely difficult human relations. In one story I heard, when Gandhi was anticipating potential violence with soldiers as he held fast to his civil disobedience, he said he trusted that the soldiers would behave as what they were—soldiers. He didn’t expect them to act or behave any differently than as they were trained to do: to follow orders and provide military defense when instructed. True story or not, it’s a good example of the kind of thinking you should strive for.

If you don’t think like Gandhi—in other words, if you trust that people will behave in a way that they probably won’t—you’re setting yourself up for problems. Unrealistic expectations can lead to faulty communication. Remember the famous quote by cartoonist Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Make sure that you’re not contributing to communication problems by expecting others to behave or think as you do, or as you think they should.

Communication should be a two-way street, but it’s often one-way instead, with more twists and turns than San Francisco’s famed Lombard Street. To help you recognize verbal volleys, take control of your words, and dodge and dart your way to having a nice day, here are some tips inspired by Oakland-based communications consultant Sharon Strand Ellison’s Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication.

Power of words
Words contain power, packaged as questions and statements. To shed some light on how convoluted communications affect us, let’s start with the simple question. Or is it so simple?

Questions can be loaded with hidden meanings, containing either intentional or not-so-intentional adversarial statements. Consider two seemingly benign questions. First, one for students: “Do you want to be a professional dancer?” Spoken in different ways in different contexts, the meanings could range from “You need to work harder” (showing irritation or unmet expectations) to a non-loaded inquiry about future plans: “Are you considering dance as a career?” Add tone of voice, body language, and qualifiers like “always,” “ever,” and “never,” and the question’s meanings become even more layered and judgmental.

Now, one from a parent: “When will Susie perform [insert coveted role]?” The meaning could range from a simple request for a chronological date to a not-so-veiled expectation that Susie should be promoted, and soon.

The most volatile questions come with multiple choices that offer no appropriate answer or are self-incriminating. I know someone who was asked in a job interview whether he would prefer to kill someone with a knife or a gun. The poor guy was so taken aback that he completely blew the interview. (Oddly enough, the interview team didn’t understand what the problem was.) Before asking such a question, think about how you would feel if you were offered only compromised answers to choose from.

“Why” questions, a common form from children, often make us feel like we’re being interrogated. Students, employees, and inquiring parents might have innocent intentions but are not always tactful. Some zingers from children: “Why don’t you wear less makeup?” and “Why are you so fat?” Even in the face of such outrageousness, think before you answer. It’s easy to laugh off a child’s lack of social skills, but when dealing with adolescents and adults, use the three-second-wait rule. That brief delay helps you avoid knee-jerk replies that may come off as defensive, sarcastic, or judgmental.

Make sure that you’re not contributing to communication problems by expecting others to behave or think as you do, or as you think they should.

Adults might not understand that they are overstepping boundaries by asking questions that are none of their concern (why the school is run the way it is, for example) or that are distracting. Two questions I’ve gotten are “Why do you work so hard?” and “Why are your eyes so dark?” These questions are particularly annoying when I’m giving a client extra time and attention. A momentary lapse of decorum on my part could mean losing the client—and even worse, my response could zip along the gossip hotline and cause ill feelings with many people.

Ellison advocates replacing “why” questions with “what” questions whenever possible. Instead of “Why don’t you pick up your children on time?” try asking, “What’s stopping you from picking up Susie on time? She was upset the last few times you were late. How can we work together to resolve this?”

Now consider the other primary mode of common speech, the statement. Statements seem straightforward, and that’s the problem. Statements define authority, but they can mislead as well.

Definitions of authority
Start observing three things: how others use inclusive pronouns, state their opinions as facts, and speak in generalizations. Analyzing these practices will show you how to exert authority with conscious skill.

Inclusive pronouns such as “we,” “you,” and “they” can suggest superiority; they distance the recipient. Saying, “We plié with the ankles first, then open the hips,” comes across as fact, whether it’s accurate or not.

Start taking note of how many people speak in generalizations, which can instantly turn opinions into “truth” (like “Everybody’s doing it, Mom”). The same thing happens when you use absolute verbs (“is,” “are”) to pass judgment (“Ballet dancers are dumb” or “Men aren’t flexible”). “They say” is a prime example of unsubstantiated authority (who are “they”?), as are unqualified percentages (10 percent of people think/do whatever) and the popular “Studies show [insert desired ‘fact’].” A simple “What do you mean?” can counter such empty statements.

Negative statements can be tough to counter. Try responding with a “why” question when someone says, “It won’t work,” or “I can’t do it.” But use one that rephrases the question in a positive way. Responses like “Why do you say it won’t work?” or “Why do you say you can’t do it?” suggest that a positive outcome is possible.

Although this kind of response allows negative people to be heard, they might not want to give more information. Ellison advocates allowing them to refuse to respond. Think about your own experiences. Coercing information out of someone can feel like theft or a violation.

Statements as predictions
Statements can become predictions, which hypothesize about a potential outcome. Parents often use predictions with their children; for example, “If you don’t stop by the time I count to three, you won’t get dessert.” However, beware the fake warning. Nothing undermines your authority like making a prediction you won’t carry out. If those parents give their children dessert even though the undesirable behavior continues, they lose credibility as authority figures. Even small children know the score on that one.

According to Ellison, predictions can be protective, foretelling, or neutral. They are protective when you give cautionary instructions, such as telling students to sew their elastics on their shoes (because using safety pins or staples would be harmful). Foretelling can be judgmental, as in “If you wear that, you’ll be on the worst-dressed list.” The best choice is a neutral prediction.

Being neutral means predicting only how you will respond to the potential choices the other person could make. You will offer two alternatives and you must clarify each choice in order to avoid having people make assumptions. For instance, if you tell a hysterical parent, “If you continue shouting at me, I will have to walk away,” and you stop there, the parent could assume that the conversation is over and there can be no positive resolution. However, adding an alternative, such as “If you stop shouting, then I will do my best to listen and find a solution,” offers a chance of a win–win resolution.

Acknowledging your own verbal accountability—for how your words come out and how they’re received—is important in maintaining a non-defensive posture, even if the person you’re in conflict with refuses to do so. Remember that excellence is born in doing the right thing. And doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily mean it will feel good in the short term.

It will take practice to remain neutral in your questions, statements, and predictions. Start to notice your interactions, and then take your cue from Gandhi and take a non-defensive stance.

I have faith in you.


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February 2010
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