Do You Talk to Win, Persuade, or Collaborate?

One thing that diversity dialogues, marital fights, and individual therapy have in common is that the purpose and goals of the conversation are often not sufficiently addressed. This leads to participation at cross purposes with the other person’s goals, or at cross purposes with the structure of the occasion. For example, one spouse wants to win an argument and compel the other to check her pockets before she puts her pants in the laundry. (I prefer not to say how I came up with this example.) The other spouse approaches the discussion in a problem-solving frame of mind. Her refusal to accept the role of evildoer, or at least of tissue-spreader, undermines the laundry-doer’s insistence on his right to compliance and leaves him with nothing but his preferences. This will make him feel helpless if he secretly thinks that his preferences don’t merit her consideration. His speech acts, proving that she is negligent, will strike her as demeaning, since she thought she was entering a housekeeping conversation and not a criminal court. Couples need to monitor their interactions for moments when one is not being treated as a spouse (in this example, Linty Pockets is being treated as a child) and stop the discussion to address that much more important point. My overarching approach to couple’s therapy was to do only that: I’d stop a couple whenever I thought one of them said something you wouldn’t say to a spouse, and then we’d either give the person a chance to say it again or we’d discuss the implications for their relationship that such a thing was considered acceptable.

Diversity dialogues are often advertised as a meeting of minds, but they’re often really re-education sessions that would make Mao proud. In these events, inclusive excellence functionally means non-inclusion, and free speech protections are afforded only to the party line (which of course doesn’t ever need free speech protections). Mandatory education sessions would be annoying, but participants would at least know how to behave in them: sit silently and wait for them to end. But when they’re advertised as dialogues, people expect to participate, to be heard.

Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin coined the term, invitational rhetoric, to describe an engagement that does not intend to overpower but to meet. It “assumes two primary rhetorical forms: (1) offering perspectives and (2) creating external conditions that allow and encourage others to present their perspectives.” Undoubtedly, the day after they coined this useful term, people started using it to disguise their efforts to overpower others. Still, it helps to ask yourself if you are engaging in a discussion because you really want to know what the other person thinks or because you already know that you are right and they are wrong. Much grief could be spared by structuring the discussion accordingly. If it’s teaching, then give a lecture. If you’re in it to win it, then a debate is in order—although there will still need to be some kind of agreement on what constitutes victory. If it’s persuasion, then the usual rhetoric will do, including especially any efforts to tie your agenda to the personal goals of the participants. Perhaps more than anything, what I want to know before participating in a diversity discussion—or, really, any discussion—is whether there is an assumption of good faith and goodwill among the members.

I know someone who works at a university where the chancellor went on a “listening tour,” scheduling meetings with various faculty groups, but then did all the talking. It would be fine to listen and it would have been fine to tell faculty that there were things he, the chancellor, wanted to tell them. But doing the latter under the banner of listening produced hard feelings. In that example, the less powerful people (the faculty) were not authorized to ask who was supposed to do the listening on the listening tour.

One of my models for conducting oneself at a meeting was provided by Stephen Bloomfield, a psychologist in Jacksonville. He was at a case conference to discuss what to do with a kid in a troubling and complicated situation. Every time he spoke, the psychiatrist would ridicule his contribution. Finally, Steve said, “Do you want to devise a treatment plan for this kid or do you want to fight? I’m up for either, but not both.” Unfortunately, I’ve rarely lived up to this model, partly because I’ve felt authorized to make a comment like that only when I am in charge of the meeting or a full-fledged member of the group and not when I was a consultant. But the model is more or less, mutatis mutandis, the cornerstone of my approach to individual therapy.

If you give patients an ambiguous enough and secure enough situation, they will mess it up with the same assumptions about collaboration and dialogue that interfere with their other relationships in life. The therapist’s job is to help patients resolve the discrepancies between the therapy relationship and their peculiar framing of it. In that sense, therapy is not entirely invitational in Foss and Griffin’s sense; it’s more like it’s as invitational as it can be given the power differential and its reasons for taking place. Genuine resolution, or problem solving, involves loosening or untying, the etymology of “solve.” The therapy relationship is like a solution, a liquid in which things dissolve to allow for new combinations. It only works if the therapist is there for invitational reasons and not to persuade, to dominate, or most common these days, to prove that she is a good—meaning harmless—person. The therapist offers perspectives on the patient and the therapy and only on the patient and the therapy for the simple reason that the needed ambiguity and security are impaired otherwise, but the therapist should share and occasion perspectives invitationally. Some people, of course, won’t accept an invitation no matter how authentically it is offered, and some are not in a position to accept an invitation for a variety of cultural, psychological, and economic reasons, so this approach to therapy won’t work with them. Otherwise, if the therapist persuades or dominates a patient, it’s being done wrong. As Isabella says in Measure for Measure, “It is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”


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