Learning how to read a room is incredibly difficult. Yet we’ve all seen people who can do it, who manage to sense how people relate to each other, and use it to get things done.Strategy+Business interviewed David Kantor, a systems therapist who coaches executives on leadership and group dynamics on how people can learn the hidden patterns of conversation and action.
The first step is to approach speech systematically. Here’s how Kantor breaks it down:
The speech act is my basic unit of analysis. Every speech act can be categorized as having one of four types of action (being a mover, opposer, follower, or bystander); one of three types of content (power, meaning, or affect); and one of three types of paradigms, or rules for establishing paradigmatic legitimacy (open, closed, or random).
That’s pretty abstract, so Kantor gives examples that show what the categories actually mean:
You can move: Start something new, like saying, “We need to spend less time in these meetings.” You can follow someone else’s move, by agreeing with it: “Yes, I’ve been concerned about the same thing.” You can oppose the move, raising objections or trying to stop it: “I don’t think that’s right. We need time to cover every topic on the agenda.” And then you can step back from the situation and stand by (or as I call it, “bystand”), reflecting on the actions being made, without agreeing or disagreeing: “Ian wants shorter meetings, Ralph wants to keep them the same length. What does everybody else think?”
Skilled communicators are aware of these categories, and know how to respond in sequence. You don’t want to oppose an opposer, for example, but you might try bystanding, to pause the sequence a bit, then follow by acknowledging that the person’s concerns are legitimate. Finally, move by establishing your own point of view or a way to discuss the problem better.
The other dimensions have more to do with the language itself: Do you make a point based on feeling (affect), based on specific actions to increase competency (power), or an argument based on reasoning or philosophy (meaning)? People tend to gravitate strongly towards one method, and discount people who use the others.
They misread each other when they are talking at cross-purposes. They essentially aren’t speaking the same language and don’t understand each other.
The final dimension is organizational. In an open system, everything is relatively unregulated until specific action points, where a designated leader or authority takes over. In a closed system, the higher you are on the power hierarchy, the more authority you have. In a random system, authority belongs to those who take and use it.
The most effective leaders combine all their attributes based on how they see people responding.
Everything you say can be framed as a combination of these elements. Suppose you’re in a cold room. You could say, “Close that window now.” That’s a closed-system move in power. You could change it to an open-system statement by saying, “It occurs to me that people are wrapping their scarves around their necks. Will somebody near the window step over there and close it?” It is still in power, but now you’re open.
The framework isn’t something you can just apply. It only works when you observe and learn from the people you interact with, and experiment to see what they respond to best. But once you have a sense of what works, it can become much easier to move conversations along, persuade people, and avoid roadblocks.
Find the full interview here
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