The Human Fluency model: A closer look at Discernment
Our model looks at how human interactions can be strengthened in order to develop, nurture and sustain healthy, meaningful relationships that are needed to live our personal and professional lives. In this article we examine one of the elements, Discernment, more closely.
How much time do you spend in consciously sharpening your discernment abilities? A silly question maybe, yet not an irrelevant one. Developing the skills to observe, (mentally) record, (mentally) categorize and (mentally) evaluate are since a long time deemed indispensable in many professions, from FBI agents to professional coaches, from security guards to medical doctors. It takes effort to consciously read and judge what is happening in front of your eyes, well maybe better to say in front of all your senses. However, when you make that effort with correct guidance from experienced people, trustworthy information sources, and lots of practice it will pay off handsomely in increased fluency in human interaction. Of course, not everyone wants or needs to become a FBI agent. However, our ability to discern is already greatly improved when we start to pay a little bit more attention.
Many of us may recognize this situation: You are emailing or chatting with a friend or colleague and before you know it the interaction has evolved into a ping-pong match. To make matters worse, your messages get misread and misunderstood. Emotions start to flare up on both sides since words and emoticons run short of bringing across the intended meaning, right tone and context. The next day you look each other up, talk it through and the relationship gets restored, albeit with a tiny scar. All whilst this could most probably have been avoided.
As human beings we have a lot of ways to read people, conversations and the situations in which these interactions unfold. We call this Discernment. We pick up signals by listening to what is said, what is not said, what kind of words are used; by picking up non-verbal signals such as body language, tone & rhythm of speech, energy; and by tuning into contextual factors such as mood, culture, psychological and biological aspects (yes, aspects such as stress, lack of sleep or sickness can have a major effect on an interaction).
Some of us may be more apt and skilled at discerning these signals than others. Also, in this day and age of technology some of these skills don’t get the practice they need, or remain absent altogether. On the other hand new discernment skills, needed to maintain virtual relationships, are being adopted by many. For instance, the use of punctuation, ‘liking’ behaviour and response rate are important clues when chatting or being active on social media. Some of these types of clues may have less meaning, if at all, in face-to-face conversations.
Hence, how we discern what is going on in an interaction and relationship can take many forms. Most of the time we combine signals rather than relying on a single clue. This a key reason of what makes human interaction so complex and dynamic. Clues are omnipresent and keep appearing, disappearing and changing in a constant flow of emittance. Some clues are consistent, some are contradicting, others are only ephemeral (such as a brief, almost undetectable eye movement), some are permanent (a sentence in an email), some are blatantly obvious and others are incredibly subtle.
Discernment in itself is not the end nor final objective. Instead it helps us as human beings to relate to each other, understand the depth of our relationships or lack thereof, to navigate social situations, conduct business, negotiate, care, lead teams, influence others, etc. In other words, beyond what is necessary to socially survive, discernment is or becomes a powerful element in our ability to interact with people in a meaningful, effective and productive way. Discernment helps us become more fluent as we are equipped with the antennae to consciously read and judge our interactions as they unfold. With those insights we can apply different skills, change our approach to cater for what the interaction needs.
Well, it all sounds so basic and exaggerated doesn’t it? It certainly isn’t rocket science and we interact with others all the time so what’s the fuss? Think about in similar ways as with breathing; we do it every moment of every day in our lives, and still many of us can be so much more conscious about how we breathe and the positive health effects that this would bring. Maybe start with something simple and ask yourself the next time when you read an email that does not make full sense: “What does this tell me and what else should I know about it?” It may be that a phone call or face-to-face conversation is better than an email or text.
Take the example of leadership coach Ronald and his client, let’s call her Agnes. During one of the their regular conversations, after a while Ronald notices that his questions are not unlocking any new thinking and insights from Agnes. They are covering known territory and somehow they are not getting to heart of what keeps her from pursuing one of the options she has generated for making a drastic career change.
Ronald reflects a few moments in silence, looking at Agnes, and realises that this is the right moment to pose a question he had thrown at her a week before, yet without any result. A question that only can be explored fully if Agnes is ready and open for it. From what he gathers from the past 30 minutes, she is getting increasingly frustrated and disappointed with herself for not breaking through her mental barrier. Ronald notices the occasional modest curse word, a few sighs, a few blank stares at the wall and her body increasingly moving and shuffling restlessly.
With what he considers to be an emotional gateway to deeper level of conversation, he pops the question that under this kind of circumstance can be very powerful in a calm and very serious voice: “So Agnes, what are you really afraid of?”. This time the question strikes gold. What consequently unfolds is a deeper level of reflection that leads Agnes to verbalize those things she had not heard herself say before. Suddenly, her most feared scenario has become a story on the table for examination and with that comes the opportunity to acknowledge, address or dispel.
This example is not meant to make Ronald a hero, because he isn’t. He is just doing his job after all. What this story illustrates is the importance of purposefully reading, interpreting, judging the constant flow of signals, information as way to raise the (quality) level of conversation. It is an important element in being effective as a coach as much as many other professional and social interactions. Where Ronald missed the boat a week before, this time his accurate discernment led to a more effective coaching conversation. And let’s also consider that Agnes’ discernment could have led to different outcomes. In the end, everyone participating in a conversation can, with his or her discernment ability, influence conversations for better or worse.
It is only through our ability to read and judge, become aware of what is happening that we can consciously steer conversations, apply different skills and make intentional and deliberate choices in service to the interaction. Let’s all invest energy in understanding what is going on, what’s unfolding in an interaction, and what it takes to take it to the desired level.
When there is a lack of Discernment expect to see the following happen:
· Miss non-verbal clues that are crucial to understanding what really is going on.
· Continue to interact in a certain mode of interaction whilst it is much better to switch to another (i.e. persisting with a Whatsapp chat when you are feeling misunderstood while you should call each other instead)
· Enthusiastically sharing stories at length whilst people have disengaged and are no longer interested.
· Miss the opportunity to connect at a deeper level even when the other person is open to it.
· Remain ignorant to what you and/or other person really need and want from the conversation.
· Misread the signs for the negotiation to better be temporarily halted.