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Conversational scaffolding

Tom Salinsky writes...

A new concept has been emerging in my training recently. I’ve found a new phrase to describe a particularly pernicious form of depersonalising interactions, often under the guise of better communication or even better emotional intelligence – which is what makes it so pernicious. I call it “conversational scaffolding”.

Just as scaffolding is all the structural building work which has to be done before the actual building work can commence, so conversational scaffolding is all the time you spend talking about the conversation, instead of actually having it. Here are two different versions of the same conversation.

Sam: Hi Chris, thanks for coming in.

Chris: No problem, Sam, what’s up?

Sam: Well, look. I’ve got something I need to talk to you about. It concerns sales figures which I know is a sensitive subject, but I want to make it clear right from the start that this is not a witch-hunt. I’m pretty sure that when you’ve heard what I’ve got to say, you’ll see this not as a threat but as an opportunity…

And so on for another ten minutes while poor Chris is left to wonder what on earth is going on. Let’s remove the conversational scaffolding and find out.

Sam: Hi Chris, thanks for coming in.

Chris: No problem, Sam, what’s up?

Sam: Well, your sales figures are down 40% while everyone else’s are up. Is there anything I should know about?

Now the conversation can start.

Conversational scaffolding wastes time, prevents people from listening as the content is boring, and erects a barrier of formality between colleagues who might usually enjoy an easy and casual relationship, but worst of all it advertises to the other person “this isn’t normal, I’m not comfortable with this, you should be worried because I’m worried.” In the example above, a good manager will be trying to understand the reasons for Chris’s underperformance and provide support. But in the first interaction, all the conversational scaffolding will tend to put Chris on the defensive before Sam has even articulated the issue.

A difficult conversation like this one won’t go any easier if you abandon the good relationship you have built up so far. And it won’t put the other person at their ease if you suddenly start behaving like a robot version of you. Nobody uses this approach in social situations.

Sam: Hi Chris, how was the holiday?

Chris: I want to begin the conversation by setting out the agenda. I’ll begin by describing the journey to the airport, then the flight and then our arrival at the holiday resort. Next we’ll talk about the excellent food and drink we enjoyed before turning to…

Chris is clearly demented.

The worst example of this – something which is often taught by other communications coaches! – is the “what I’ve heard is” technique, wherein a manager who has to “handle” someone “difficult” summarises the conversation so far. It’s very hard to do this without sounding patronising and it’s almost impossible to do this without introducing this unnecessary air of artificiality. At the very least, you make it perfectly clear to the other person that you regard them as someone who is difficult and who does need handling – not likely to lead to a strengthening of the relationship.

People do it when giving presentations too and for the same reasons – the context makes them feel awkward and so they erect barriers between themselves and the audience. Ploughing through tedious agenda slides, spending ages on irrelevant personal biographies, explaining the point of the talk rather than just sharing the information are all examples of this. In a tiny way, so is even saying the words “on this slide”. How much more personal, robust, and convincing is it to say “the figures show…” or “here’s what we think it will look like” or just simply “I believe”?

Buildings may need scaffolding when they are being constructed, but you never see it when the work is done. Prepare for long presentations or difficult conversations by all means, but don’t share the structure with your audience. Tell them what you’ve got to say. Listen to their reply. Respond.

February 17th, 2014 - This post has no comments. - Tags: , ,

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