You’re in a tough situation.
You want to be kind and thoughtful, but you also need to get your point across.
You want to preserve the relationship, but you also want to tell the truth.
You don’t want to hurt their feelings, but you need them to change their behavior.
You don’t know what to say.
We’ve all been in these tough situations. Sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes it doesn’t. Is there any kind of general advice we can follow that will help us handle difficult conversations more effectively? I think there is.
What to Say to a Group Member who is Not Pulling His Weight?
Let’s take a concrete example I’ve studied for years.
You are in charge of an important group project at work. One member of your group, Ron, was recommended to you from another part of the organization based on his excellent reputation. You put Ron in charge of a key section of the project. But Ron has not been performing well. He has been late to several meetings and missed one meeting completely without telling anyone in advance. The team is meeting tomorrow to put the final project together. Ron calls you up the night before and says his part of the project is not done and he needs more time. What do you say to Ron?
(Before you read the examples below, write down what you would say to Ron. This exercise will be more fun if you have your own message to reflect on.)
Let’s look at some examples of what these differences look like in the context of this group project situation.
Expressive Messages: Pragmatically Pointless Venting
At the earliest stage of development, people use the expressive logic of message design. That is, they tend to focus on the past and on themselves.
They express their thoughts, wants, feelings, and beliefs in a relatively unedited way, ignoring the message’s relationship consequences, and not focusing on the main task of the message (e.g., getting Ron to do his part).
Expressive messages are pragmatically pointless. They do nothing to achieve the goals of the situation. They just vent the speaker’s feelings and often contain insults, complaints, and guilt trips.
Here are some real examples I’ve collected over the years.
Ron, if you knew you have problem getting it done, you would have told me ahead of time. Now what would you expect me to do. We are running out of time. You really dropped the ball on me Ron!
Ron I am very disappointed to hear that your work is not complete because it makes the entire team look bad and is not fair to other team members.
Another characteristic of expressive messages is non-contingent punishment, most often firing Ron from the group. Whereas someone with a conventional logic might use a contingent threat (e.g., if you don’t do X, I’ll do Y), the expressive threat is pure punishment with no point except to harm Ron.
We were depending on you to finish your part of the presentation. We do not have any more time. We will finish your part of the project and you will not be included.
Ron, I am sorry to say this but no longer can I try to understand your responsibility. We all must learn to separate our personal problems from our professional lives. I am going to recommend that you be removed from our group and from the association all together until you can prove to be a more responsible and professional adult. I’m sorry!
Ron, this is becoming a habit with you. I will have to release you from the group.
Ron, I’m sorry but your contribution to this project is not what we had hoped for. I’m going to replace you with someone who is able to give a better commitment.
Ron, there is no more time. I’ll have someone else finish the project.
When we used to give this task to college undergrads, we would get more purely expressive messages. But it is relatively rare to see purely expressive messages among the employed adults we normally survey these days (and that's a good thing).
What is more common is for us to see expressive elements (e.g., complaints, pointless requests, insults) mixed in with more relevant and mature content.
Whenever I think of the classic expressive message producer, I think of the old Saturday Night Live “Point/Counterpoint” skit between Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin. If you’re too young to remember, check it out. (If you’re easily offended, skip it.)
Conventional Messages: Rules, Rights and Obligations
At the next stage of development, people learn that communication is more than just the unfiltered transmission of one’s own thoughts.
They learn that it is a game played by conventional rules, including rules of politeness, rules that govern the rights and obligations attached to specific social roles, and rules for doing certain actions with words, like making threats or promises.
We say these people are using a conventional logic of message design.
Some conventional messages can be very simple, but they differ from expressive messages in that they have some focus on the task goals. They often contain little more than simple offers of help or straightforward task directives.
What's going on? How are you doing? Anything I can help with? We have a pretty big commitment here. Can I help? Can we work this out?
What are the factors that are limiting you to finish the task? You have a responsibility to the group and by backing down you are not holding up your end of the agreement and disappointing others. Is there something I can do to assist in this manner?
Please bring anything you have completed and share with the group. We need this completed by meeting time.
Conventional message producers use contingent threats.
Get your act together or quit. I don’t have to put up with your behavior.
Return actively to this group or you should resign.
Your persistent tardiness and unpreparedness is disruptive to the group and we cannot afford to not have our work completed on time. Either let us help you resolve your issues or maybe you should find a position that is a little more flexible for you.
Expressive messages focus mostly on the past, but conventional messages tend to focus on the present. Conventional messages also focus on rights and obligations, and they see the context (e.g., the deadline) as fixed and non-negotiable.
Hey Ron, this is a very important project. I understand that we all have obligations other than this project, but the group was really counting on you to get 2 of the most important aspects of the project done. Is there anything I can help you with? I know you said you need more time, but we have a deadline. Let me know if I can help you in any way or if you need to discuss your role in the group. Thanks.
What do you need in order to finish this in the time frame required? There is no more time and not completing this is not an option.
Ron--there is no time I can give you--I need to know what I can do to help you get this job done. We are depending on you---this is very important and your career is on the line---buck up and get it done.
Ron, you accepted a responsibility and I expect you to deliver. Re-adjust your priorities and have your sections finished on time.
Conventional messages contain task-relevant content. They rely on existing social arrangements and structures of authority.
They are not obviously deficient like expressive messages, but they lack sophistication, and they especially fail to address the relationship with Ron or the need to establish consensus about the common good.
For that you need the rhetorical logic of message design.
Rhetorical Messages: Flexibility, Symbolic Sophistication, and a Focus on the Relationship
At the highest level of development of communication skill, people view communication not as unfiltered expression and not as a game played by social rules but as the use of language to create context and to negotiate the meaning of social selves and situations.
People who use the rhetorical logic of message design value symbolic sophistication.
Rather than seeing social contexts and roles and obligations as fixed, they see them all as flexible and re-negotiable through the process of communication itself.
Expressive messages are full of pointless insults and expressions of emotion.
Conventional messages seem to come from boilerplate language focused on politeness, rights, obligations, threats, and promises.
Rhetorical messages are complex and creative, focusing on the relationship, using language in an explicit attempt to change the meaning of the situation and to smooth the way forward toward the achievement of common goals.
I’ve included several long rhetorical messages below so you can see the creativity and skill people use in this situation. I will point out some but not all of the interesting features of each message.
As you read these messages, look back and compare them to the ones from above.
Can you see the evidence of more fully developed communication skill and greater mastery of language as a tool for shaping social interaction?
Rhetorical Message #1
I appreciate you telling me as soon as you realized you wouldn’t be able to meet our deadline. How far have you gotten? What portion if any will you be able to have completed and/or what would be the easiest and most helpful to hand off to the rest of the team? I know we are all really busy trying to wear multiple hats and complete various tasks is there something that I could help you with if we prioritize this task now and we could team up on something later this week that is not as pressing? What can I do to help you?
The message begins by thanking Ron. Notice how different this is from less sophisticated messages that scold and punish Ron for getting in touch too late.
The facts of the situation are identical, but one communicator thinks scolding Ron will be effective and useful, while a more sophisticated communicator thinks it will be more effective to frame Ron’s behavior as conscientiously notifying the group leader of a problem.
Instead of framing Ron’s behavior as a betrayal of the group, he asks what would be “easiest and most helpful to hand off to the rest of the team.”
He then empathizes with Ron’s busy schedule, and is flexible about the deadline, offering to meet Ron later in the week to finish up the work.
Rhetorical Message #2
I appreciate that this project can certainly become overwhelming given the multifaceted nature of the responsibilities we each have been assigned by our Association. I want you to know that I am committed to supporting you as we determine the most feasible next steps so that our group can successfully meet the deadline that we agreed upon at the time we decided to collaborate with our team on this project.
The first part of the message empathizes with Ron and talks about the speaker’s commitment to a shared goal of finishing the project.
The framing is all about success, cooperation, teamwork, and support.
The next part of the message makes rational appeals to Ron about the work he agreed to, its importance to the project, and the need to meet the deadline that everyone agreed to in advance.
You have oversight over two of the most critical parts of our project and I respect that those components do require exhaustive efforts to ensure they are completed accurately according to the established protocols.
It asks Ron to meet with him or her, but not as punishment, only as a means to partnering and helping Ron address his own expressed concerns.
Notice how the deadline is framed as non-negotiable, but this is not used to beat Ron up. It’s just a reminder of what reasonable people agreed to.
I want to sit down with you Ron so that we can chat about how we can partner together to most effectively address the concerns you are expressing to me today. I am readily available this afternoon to meet with you, and I appreciate you bringing in your documents and materials so that we can review the work that has been accomplished and still requires attention prior to the deadline that the head of our Association gave to us, the non-negotiable deadline that we agreed upon as a group at the time we accepted this task.
It ends by expressing certainty in a successful outcome.
This is characteristic of rhetorical communicators. They want a successful resolution, so they express confidence in such a resolution. They use language to shape perceptions of the situation.
Rhetorical communicators also have enormous (sometimes too much) faith in communication as a problem-solving tool.
I am certain if we can jointly ascertain exactly what aspects of your task are contributing to your challenges we can dissect them and address them in a timely and successful manner.
The message ends by asking for Ron’s permission to move forward with the plan.
As the group leader, the message producer has the power to force or coerce Ron’s cooperation. But rhetorical message producers see the object of communication as negotiating consensus about how to achieve the common good.
Would you be willing to allow me this opportunity to meet with you so that we can forge ahead with this project and meet the deadline we agreed upon originally?
Rhetorical Message #3
This message begins by asking Ron for help, rather than scolding or punishing him or telling him what to do.
Ron could you help me understand the difficulties you have encountered in this project ?
The message then goes on at length about Ron’s obligations, the team’s hard feelings, and it puts the onus on Ron to come up with a solution. It promises support in exchange for Ron’s cooperation.
Instead of threatening Ron’s career, the group leader promises not to threaten his career (which still may be heard as an indirect threat).
I understand that the hour is late but the team is relying on your input, and I am certain there will be hard feelings. Ron, I need you to suggest a resolution and solution and decide steps forward. Be assured that I will support you and work with you if you have a commitment and are able to. I will not put you or your career at risk but need assurance that this is reasonable to you.
It then talks about fairness and mutual respect. Even though Ron has acted irresponsibly and disrespectfully to the group, the rhetorical communicator uses a technique called altercasting to describe Ron as he wants Ron to be (i.e., respectful).
He ascribes to Ron characteristics that he wants Ron to have, in the hopes that saying it will make it so, or that Ron will want to live up to this description.
And it ends by expressing confidence in a positive outcome and thanks Ron for efforts Ron has yet to make. This is classic rhetorical message design.
I am aware that there have been some negative discussion and we will need to be forthright in our approach and I am sure we can work together to be fair to you and the team. We respect you and I am sure the respect is mutual. We are all human and deal with many work and outside work complexities. Ron, I am sure we can deal with this. Thanks for your efforts.
Rhetorical Message #4
This message focuses almost entirely on Ron’s mental state. This reflects the typical rhetorical message producer’s preoccupation with other people’s inner lives, especially their attitudes, beliefs, plans, goals, and intentions.
The rhetorical communicator is committed to rational discourse and is convinced that others must be acting rationally and cooperatively also.
If Ron’s behavior appears to be irrational or uncooperative, it must be that his mental state has been misunderstood.
The entire message is based on the assumption that if the group leader can get in sync with Ron’s mental state, that Ron’s work will get done and the group project will succeed.
Hey Ron, can we talk about how this group project and our team dynamic is going? I'd like to get a sense of how engaged you are with the group. I'll tell you, sometimes I get a sense that you are not able to give us the time the project needs, but I know I haven't had a chance to talk to you about it and see where you stand. Can you tell me where you are with this, mentally? I don't want the group thinking something that isn't, and I want to help and be sure our group does the best work possible in the time we have remaining.
This may be an odd analogy, but rhetorical message producers always make me think about the sport of curling, that Olympic sport where people sweep the ice in front of a big granite stone so the stone goes just where they want it to go.
The rhetorical message producer is using language to smooth the social situation so it goes precisely where they want it to go.
People differ dramatically in the ways they reason about communication. As a result they produce very different messages in response to the same situation.
This is not just a point of theoretical interest.
Expressive, conventional, and rhetorical messages are not just different.
Some are much more effective than others.
Generally speaking, rhetorical messages will be heard as more polite, persuasive, effective, considerate, mature, etc., and are more likely to achieve their goals.
So if we had to boil down the characteristics of rhetorical messages to a set of guidelines, what would they be?
Focus on the future and on the relationship, not on your own feelings or only on the present task and situation.
Try to aim for a negotiated consensus, based on what is good for all of the participants.
Be attentive to the attitudes, beliefs, plans, goals, and intentions of the other person. Try to take their perspective. Acknowledge their feelings if you know them. If you don’t know what they are thinking or feeling, ask.
Use language to shape and define the context. Don't assume the context is fixed. Communication creates the social world. Describe things the way you want them to be (e.g., I know you’re a person who lives up to your responsibilities, Ron), and invite the other person to accept your definition of the situation.
Act rationally and cooperatively, and act as if the other person in the situation is rational and cooperative.
It won’t be easy to follow this advice.
If you are still at an earlier developmental stage, it may be almost impossible.
It’s like telling a small child to just “be a little taller.” Some changes take time.
Nevertheless, more effective messages have these characteristics, and they are worth emulating. Next time you’re in a difficult situation, think about this list and it might help you.
As always, I’m interested in what you think.
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