If you tend to say the following to your employees, relatives, or friends, you may be too controlling:
- “I don’t understand why you haven’t completed that report yet.”
- “I want you to say sorry to Accounting about your problem. I need you to go over there, make amends with them, and inform me of how it went.”
- “We will meet at 4 P.M.”
Control talk is expected and natural. It often transpires in day-to-day conversation as a device to influence or persuade the world to see and act our way. Within certain limits of performance, control talk is accepted in critical situations.
However, control talk can get out of bounds quickly and become perceived as a threat. When one party to any conversation has more perceived power—formal or informal authority, perhaps,—unreasonable control talk can soon push the other to concede this power imbalance and restrain what he/she wants. As the American family counselor Dr Tim Kimmel writes in Powerful Personalities (1993,) “Control is when you leverage the strength of your position or personality against the weakness of someone else’s in order to get that person to meet your (selfish) agenda.”
Control talk can promptly engender intense negative emotions. The ensuing conflict becomes evident in the tone of voice, posture, and facial and body expressions. After that, self-defensive reactions will only make matters worse.
Keep all communication with others candid and respectful. Frame your messages in a positive manner that does not contain sarcasm, imply warning, provoke guilt or blame, or suggest intimidation. Summarize what you heard, and ask questions. Practice pauses—they give the other a moment of silence to get beyond the emotional response and allow them to think cognitively.
Wherever possible, ask open-ended questions to de-escalate an argument. Open-ended questions are an invitation to be nonjudgmental, investigate, relate, and see things differently. Try these alternatives:
- “Tell me more—I want to understand. What can I do to make your job easier?”
- “Let’s discuss possible solutions to that Accounting problem. How can we change the situation?”
- “Are you available for a 4 P.M. meeting? Let’s see what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Wise persuasion elegantly combines rational arguments and appeals to positive values and the other’s feelings about a subject. Only when you can engage them emotionally can you change the way they think.