“What Do You Do If…”

Speakers and trainers often get very good if rather general questions from their audiences. Some questions I’ve been asked during my trainings include:

  • “What do you do if your colleague is just a really difficult person?”
  • “How do you give feedback to a boss with a strong personality?”
  • “Which courses should I take to learn to converse better?”
  • “How can I help a colleague suffering from imposter syndrome?”
  • “What should I do if I ask an open question and get a short answer anyway?”

These are excellent questions. And they’re almost impossible to answer to the asker’s satisfaction. It took me a very long time to realise why answering these types of questions always felt like grasping at straws, and why the asker rarely seemed pleased with the answer. Then I saw this Instagram reel by Esther Perel, and had a lightbulb moment:

You can’t overcome a challenge without context

Behind every question that I listed above is a story with a wealth of context. What’s the situation like? What’s the relationship like? What’s the opposing side like (as a whole)? What have you already tried? What kind of structural possibilities, processes or tools does your employer offer? What do you mean by “difficult”, “personality” or “learn to converse”? In what kind of situation are we having this conversation? What should you achieve, what’s the goal?

Context matters immensely. A banal example is, for example, the words, “My condolences.” You expect the phrase when attending a funeral, but in a wedding it’s either a thoroughly inappropriate comment or if not good then at least a mediocre joke.

Context affects our choice of words, nuances, tools and tactics, how hard we go in with our chosen strategies and how we choose an approach. Even seemingly surefire strategies such as empathetic listening simply do not work in every situation.

Differences between people add to the difficulty

Human matters are unpleasantly multi-faceted and, unlike with ones and zeroes, there’s an enormous number of different shades of grey. The same tool may work perfectly with one person and end up in a total catastrophe with another. The same tool with the same person may be an excellent fit today and a disaster tomorrow. A tool may work well or badly even depending on the person using it. You try giving an unequivocal answer, given all that.

It’s almost impossible to know beforehand how a given person is going to react to something. As a young customer service rep, I once had a customer shout at me for wishing them a good day. I couldn’t have guessed that those words could go so badly wrong.

That is why giving effective advice in response to a general question is… well, challenging.

But what about your simple tips during trainings?

During my training sessions, I give a lot of general advice such as:

  • Avoid using the word but, especially if the other person is angry or probably doesn’t want to hear your message.
  • Replace your why questions with what or how questions, especially when you’re only beginning to form a relationship with your client.
  • Don’t use absolutes such as always and never when you give feedback.

Isn’t this a bit questionable if at the same time I recognise that giving general advice is very difficult?

Yes and no.

I believe that in communications and human interactions, as in many areas of life, there are general principles that apply to many situations. They are not applicable always and everywhere, but they apply often enough that they’re good places to begin if you’re not quite sure what to try first. These general principles will help you get the ball rolling, and they take you relatively far.

Only experience can give you knowledge about the situations and people in which these principles do not work. When they fail, you get to try different applications, seek other alternatives and create new approaches. That’s a lot easier when you know the story and understand the context.

TL;DR It’s hard to answer a general question if you don’t know the context

  • Context has an impact on everything.
    • There is no technique that works in every situation.
  • In many situations, there are good general principles.
    • Experience will tell you when they will not work.
    • Understanding the context helps when you need to apply your knowledge, seek alternatives and create new approaches.

Or what do you think?

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