My wife was trying to pay our insurance premium online. I heard her sigh and then groan. Finally she picked up the phone and called the insurance page helpline.
"But I did that already," she said, her voice rising in exasperation. "When I clicked pay, everything I entered disappeared."
She hung up, re-entered all of her information, clicked pay and all of her information disappeared again. She redialed the helpline, more unhappy than the first time she called. As she explained the problem, I could hear a woman's voice, saying, "I know, I know," in a calm, commiserating tone. Almost instantly the stress disappeared from my wife's voice, she laughed, reached for her keyboard and started following the woman's instructions.
What struck me was that even before my wife's problem had been solved, her frustration had mostly vanished. Mostly, not entirely. (She also said, "Meanwhile, you're not getting any money because your website won't take it.") Nevertheless, the tension had eased and her annoyance had been lowered. Why? She had found a listener who had conveyed, as much by her tone as her words, (1) she understood her problem, (2) she recognized her exasperation and (3) she affirmed her right to feel what she was feeling.
"I know. I know." In other words, I understand. I empathize. I affirm. And with that assurance, the conversation took a positive turn. If only everyone in customer service understood the importance of that simple response.
I understand. I empathize. I affirm.
American psychologist Carl Rogers used affirmation in his non-oppositional approach to conflict resolution, a method once commonly used in marriage counseling. Unlike classical argument, in which one party tries to prove the other wrong, in Rogerian argument both parties search for common ground. Rather than a win-lose adversarial approach, Rogerian argument searches for a win-win solution.
Hierarchical work environments tend to favor classical argument; more egalitarian environments favor Rogerian. The former rewards aggression, bold leadership and clear-cut decisionmaking; the latter engenders trust, creativity and risk-taking.
The efficacy of Rogerian argument depends on its conciliatory tone. It isn't a question of proving one person right and the other wrong. It's a matter of emphasizing commonality in a process that proceeds in this order: I understand your point of view, even if it differs from mine. I recognize your right to hold it. If fact, if I were you, I would feel the same way. And I affirm the validity of your viewpoint, at least under certain circumstances.
Note the word certain. Rogerian affirmation is meant to facilitate resolution, not force capitulation. There's still room to disagree. The insurance company still has to get its website to work, and my wife isn't going to pay until it does. After affirming an opposing viewpoint under certain circumstances, either party can turn the argument in a direction closer to its own position. But if the process is working and both sides are genuinely listening to the other, both are more likely to compromise.
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.