Curious Jordy

Get a Grip!

Traction is key.

I came to this realization on my jog through Golden Gate Park this morning, when I crossed a wet log and promptly slipped. Running in dry weather, it’s easy to take traction for granted and assume that all you need to get from Point A to Point B is power. WRONG. You need power + traction.

Power without traction can lead to movement, but it is often not in the direction you intend. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of spinning out in a car, you know that sometimes you end up going sideways. Other times, like my log experience this morning, the winning direction is down, as in “falling on your ass”. The bottom line is, all the power and good intentions in the world won’t get you to where you want to go if you don’t have traction.

How people tend to fall on their ass (metaphorically)

It turns out, this lesson can apply to other situations in life where people tend to fall on their ass, metaphorically speaking. Take giving advice, for example. This is one area where I personally have slipped up more than my fair share of times. Here’s a typical scenario:

  1. I’m talking to my friend John, and I hear him complaining about a certain problem in his life
  2. I give John some advice: “Hey John, you should just do X”. (Like most guys, I am unable to hear about a problem without feeling the need to fix it immediately.)
  3. John doesn’t seem to appreciate my well-meaning advice, and starts to get somewhat defensive.
  4. I hear his resistance, so I decide I just need to give my advice more clearly and forcefully.
  5. John becomes visibly resentful and leaves the conversation in a huff. I, in turn, resent John for being so defensive all the time when I’m just trying to help. FAIL.

What happened here? Let’s revisit the key steps in this interaction, imagining that our conversation is a vehicle where I’m behind the wheel. My goal was to steer the conversation vehicle to a certain location, but I failed and we spun out. (The only reason I place myself in the driver’s seat here is because in this scenario I was the one trying to achieve a particular agenda.)

  1. John complains about a problem in his life ==> There’s a curve in the road up ahead.
  2. I give John some advice ==> I turn the steering wheel into the curve.
  3. John doesn’t seem to appreciate my advice, and starts to get defensive ==> The car starts to skid.
  4. I re-state my advice more forcefully ==> I turn even harder into the curve.
  5. John gets resentful and leaves the conversation. FAIL. ==> The car spins out and skids into a snowbank. FAIL.

The “Get A Grip” Method

So, how to avoid skidding into a snowbank?  First, as they advise drivers, it’s a lot easier to avoid a skid in the first place than to recover from one. Avoiding a skid with someone in the first place would involves a few things.

1. KNOW THE ROAD CONDITIONS: this is how much traction you have with the other person to begin with. How long have you known each other? Have you given each other advice on this subject before? Is the other person a guy or a girl? Guys tend to be a lot more defensive if another guy tries to give them advice without them explicitly asking for it.

2. INITIATE GRACEFULLY: instead of yanking the wheel hard to initiate the turn (“Hey John, I figured out what you should do with your life…”), start the turn gracefully. ASK. “Hey John, I’d like to offer you more than just help and support. Would now be a good time to talk about some ways to move forward?”  It’s amazing what you can get away with in life if you just ask for permission first.

Despite your best intentions, you might still find yourself skidding in a conversation with someone you care about. If this happens:

1. DETECT that you are skidding as soon as possible. This should be very easy to do, in theory. All you have to do is become aware that the conversation isn’t going where you want it to and that one or both parties are starting to act upset. In practice, however, this is a lot harder to do. You’re so involved in the conversation itself and getting your point across that it may not occur to you to take a step back until it’s too late.

2. COUNTER-STEER to correct the skid. In driving terms, counter-steer is when you turn INTO the direction of a skid temporarily, in order to allow the tires to regain traction. Once the tires have traction again, you can get back to steering through the turn. Similarly, if your conversation is skidding, you need to temporarily turn towards the skid, away from the desired goal, even though that feels like the last thing you want to do. Going back to the John example, counter-steering could take the form of me saying something like, “Hey John, let’s take a step back for a minute. I can see that I’m coming across like I have all the answers and I’m trying to tell you what to do with you life. I’m sorry about that. Ultimately I only want the best for you.” This kind of language – spoken sincerely – can immediately transform an interaction. Sincerity is clutch here. People are generally good at recognizing when you speak from the heart, and if you are just going through the motions with these words you’ll only make the tailspin even worse.

3. PROCEED CAUTIOUSLY, and only once you have regained traction. It’s usually blatantly obvious when traction has been regained in a conversation. You feel a sense of closeness and empathy with the other person. The ice between you two, just like the ice on the road, will have melted away, and they will be much more receptive to your gently-worded advice.

There you have it – the “get a grip” method, in a nutshell. Incidentally, this method isn’t restricted to just giving advice but could be useful in a wide variety of interpersonal situations: negotiating for a raise, talking to a coworker about a performance problem, or confronting a loved one about a violated expectation. In a future post I’ll describe how to apply this method in some of these examples.

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