Poser-Proof Practices: Don’t tell–show
You expect people to walk their talk. When they have for a while you gain confidence that they will continue to do so, that they’re as good as their word. With established rapport, the question of whether they keep their word doesn’t even come up.
But when you haven’t known someone long or when some of the steps they’ve walked have raised suspicions, then you start to wonder, and words are no longer enough. You need proof that they aren’t all talk. You want to see action.
If someone doubts your word, you can, of course, take umbrage—even though, since they already doubt you, your umbrage is at least as likely to further reduce rapport as it is to restore it. To build rapport you need what could be called a poser-proof practice—a sign that can’t be faked, instead of the cheap and easily counterfeited practices that come to mind first.
An example: In arguments, people shout at each other, in part because they don’t feel they’re being heard. So how, in the heat of an argument, can you demonstrate that you’ve heard? We often say “I hear you,” but that’s easy to say even if you don’t hear.
Instead, you have to say something that doesn’t have that drawback. For example, in an argument over not rinsing dishes before putting them into the dishwasher, you say:
“Wait please. I need to first make sure I’m hearing you correctly. You’re saying that I don’t rinse the dishes enough and as a result they’re coming out dirty and the dishwasher is getting clogged. Did I hear you correctly?”
This increasingly popular communication practice is called Mirroring. It’s a poser-proof practice that demonstrates that you really are listening, you want to understand, and ultimately (after confirmation from the other party) that you’ve heard. To mirror you must first have heard, whereas even those too self-involved to listen can say, “I hear you.”
Here are some other poser-proof practices:
Weavidence (evidence of weaving): How do you let people— bosses, job interviewers, dates, children—know you really want a creative conversation? How do you induce an improvised spontaneous dialog riffing off of each other’s thoughts, rather than the uncreative exchange of pre-recorded thoughts that often passes for conversation? This is especially crucial with job interviewers, since they’ve heard all the stock interviewee charmer-lines before.
Not by saying “I Really like an open exchange of ideas,” a signal that’s easily sent disingenuously. Rather than saying it, do it. Weave something your conversation partner said earlier back into the conversation, with evidence that you’ve thought about it and worked with it, and you will demonstrate what you really want.
“I was thinking about what you said yesterday about [thus and such], and how it relates to something I’ve been wondering about . . . ”
Like mirroring, weavidence is often contagious. If you’re listening or weaving, then the other person might start to do so as well. Might—none of these practices are foolproof. Your weavidence could backfire, convincing your conversation partner that he’s a star guru being interviewed. But more often than not these poser-proof practices increase rather than decrease the quality of the interaction.
Leaderslip:* How does a leader demonstrate that no idea is too stupid to be worth considering? Not by saying so, since talk is cheap. When the boss just says, “No idea is too stupid,” no one believes it.
Instead, as a leader, toss in an idea and let it get shot down. Letting it die without taking it personally demonstrates a healthy alternative to clinging-author syndrome, that “don’t kill my baby,” tendency that sidetracks collaborations from the quest for the best product. Say, “You’re right, it’s not a great idea. How about some others?”
S.E.A.M.-meant: In a conflict, list the specific goals that bind you and your opponent together.
“You know why we’re fighting, of course? Obviously, it’s because we both care about X, Y, and Z. ”
This poser-proof practice demonstrates that you won’t assume that a disagreement about means is a disagreement about ends: “Oh, you think we should get out of Iraq? You must not care about America.”
S.E.A.M. stands for same ends, alternative means. Your same ends are the threads that bind you together. The conflicts arise because you have common goals and therefore face tough judgment calls together. With tough judgment calls, the stakes are high, it’s unclear what the situation calls for and your alternative actions are incompatible so you can’t hedge. No wonder collaborators will disagree even though they agree about the ends they aim to achieve.
Give-and-stake: After a conflict with someone, list the things you’ll do differently rather than the things they ought to do differently. Make your pledges concrete and realistic. This poser-proof practice demonstrates that you know relationships are give-and-take, that you have a stake in making the relationship work for both of you, and that you are paying attention to your role in the conflicts that arise. Willingness to declare the role you played in the conflict demonstrates that you’ve gotten beyond a conflict’s polarized focus on the other side’s faults.
In biology, poser-proof practices are called “costly signals,” signals that cost so much to produce that they can’t be faked. Nature is full of fakers—creatures like the viceroy butterfly, whose wing pattern imitates that of the poisonous monarch butterfly, so birds are faked into believing the viceroy is not good to eat.
Nature likewise abounds with lie-detectors, systems for spotting the fake. And nature therefore abounds with costly signals, poser-proof practices that require so much energy that viceroy wannabes can’t afford them. For example, many secondary sexual traits are now thought to be costly signals indicating good health and strong genes. A male peacock’s plumage, for example—there’s no way to grow and carry such a lustrous and cumbersome load if you aren’t a healthy specimen—it simply would cost too much to fake.
Collect the known poser-proof practices and use them when you need to reel in an alienated ally. And make up some of your own. It takes some imagination to come up with such simple solutions. Ask not “How can I persuade them of my intent?” but rather “How can I demonstrate it?” Apply that tried-and-true adage from fiction writing: “Don’t tell—show.”
* Credit for the term leaderslip goes to Michael Papanek, a friend and business consultant in San Francisco.