30. The mega- importance of micro-interactions - part 1
Why the small things are utterly key in interpersonal connection
As the new editor of the Journal of Solution Focused Practices (JSFP, free to read and download, by the way), I am lucky enough to get to read and review the latest research into Solution Focused (SF) practice and theory. One of the great contributors to our field was Professor Janet Bavelas of the University of Victoria, Canada. Janet’s life was spent in micro-analysis of conversations and dialogues, looking at the tiny differences which have big effects on how things emerge in our everyday lives.
Janet died in December 2022 at the age of 82. In a tribute published in JSFP, her colleague Sara Jordan wrote about her influence both personal and professional and ended with an aphorism of Janet’s which continues to resonate with me: Life happens in detail.
Life happens in detail (Janet Bavelas, 1940-2022)
This week in Steps To A Humanity Of Organisation I will look at how the tiny details matter, both in positive and negative ways. You can turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear with badly placed small words, gestures or reactions. And, of course, the other possibility is true too – you can also snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by making a positive difference. That’s enough corny metaphors – let’s get on with it.
Details matter – so look out for them
It’s clear that the words we use and choose to use make a difference to how our communication is received. This is a subtle business; a careful eye and ear can notice relevant differences between phrases which many people think are equivalent. For example, in SF practice we often ask small questions like “What else?”, to encourage our interlocutors to go on and build what they’ve been speaking about. I have spent decades teaching people to ask “What else?” – and I am struck by how many people, even when specifically told to ask “What else?”, ask a different question instead:
These two questions look similar at first glance – but they have important differences. “Anything else?” is a closed, yes/no question. It invites the person to ask themselves if there is anything else they wish to add. The easiest answer is ‘No’, particularly when we’re exploring the details of a situation they may not have encountered before or the details of which they have never considered. “What else?”, however, is an open question which asks not about whether there is more, but assumes there is and asks the person to find it. In my experience this makes a big difference – most people, when asked “What else?”, will come up with something. And when you’re in the business of developing detailed descriptions (as SF practitioners are), that’s a very important factor.
“What else?” is not the same as “Anything else?”. Those are different wordings – but different meanings can be achieved even with the same words, by emphasis. The British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural and educational opportunities (and under threat from our current heads-in-the-sand nativist government) has a fine example to share:
I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes.
Just by varying the word which is stressed, the meaning can be changed dramatically:
1. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes. (e.g. not 3 kilos)
2. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes. (e.g. not 2 potatoes)
3. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes. (e.g. not your sister)
4. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes. (e.g. not white potatoes)
5. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes. (e.g. not sweetcorn)
We could add to this:
6. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes (I am disappointed that you didn’t)
7. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes (not steal them from the farmer’s field)
8. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes (not your Auntie)
9. I asked you to buy me two kilos of sweet potatoes (so why are you not paying attention to me? I’m your father! 😊)
Creating the meaning we intend is clearly a subtle business, and it’s notable that we manage to navigate this potential minefield most of the time without too much difficulty. But… sometimes we can unwittingly undermine our intentions.
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Micro-aggressions are broadly defined as
“Everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative message to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Sue et al 2019)
They often take the form of:
Questions or comments that reveal assumptions based on stereotypes
Undermining in public
Assumptions about shared cultural experiences
This short video shows how microaggessions can seem unimportant - except to those on the end of them!
My friend and colleague Rayya Ghul has been involved in developing resources for staff and students at the University of Edinburgh about how to notice and respond to microaggressions. What makes this particularly difficult is that often the person concerned may be unaware of the impact of their language, or unconcerned by it. “They are almost always the result of stereotyping of certain groups, which is learned through our social conditioning and we may be unaware of how these can affect others.”, says Rayya, who has developed resources for racial, socioeconomic, sexuality, trans/non-binary and disability contexts.
She points out that most instances of microaggression are unintended. Her three-part taxonomy gives three kinds of microaggression:
For this piece I will leave aside microassaults, which are usually intentional, explicit and deliberate (expressions of hatred, use of slurs etc). That leaves microinsults (often stereotypical assumptions and careless language) and microinvalidation (nullifying or negating concerns or lived experience). For example (in a racial context):
“Your English is very good” (as if that was a surprise or worth remarking on)
“You’re exotic” (an attempt to be complimentary, but experienced as unwelcome differentiation)
“You are a credit to your people” (would you say that to a white person from leafy Bath?)
“I’m sure they didn’t mean it” (siding with the aggressor)
“You’re being over-sensitive” (please be quiet and shut up)
“I’m colourblind” (I don’t care about your race, and neither should you)
Tiny distinctions make big differences
I’m writing about this here in Steps To A Humanity Of Organisation to point out not simply that these things can and do happen, even with the best intentioned people, to have us think not only about how to respond when microaggressions occur, but also how tiny shifts in language can make big differences to how we come across. An organisation which is both humane and effective will surely be adept at engaging all its people and all its stakeholders, not leaving them feeling set apart.
So how would it be if you were to say:
“Your calculus is very good”
“You are a credit to the organisation”
“I think that’s uncomfortable for you, yes?”
“I’m being under-sensitive”
“We’re all different in some ways, I guess…”
And yes, these differences are about moving away from distinctions of labelling and onto the individual concerned, your experience of them and your own place in the interaction.
Responding to microaggressions is not easy. If you are in a position of authority (a teacher or manager, say) you can start by focusing on the offender not the victim, making the invisible visible by pointing out the context of the remark, disarming the aggression by referring to the organisation’s or your team’s values, and helping educate the offender. More about this key topic on the University of Edinburgh website.
If you’re a friend or colleague, the ‘Say Maaate to a mate’ campaign by London mayor Sadiq Kahn (originally aimed at mysoginistic behaviour by men, but useful in other settings to) has much to recommend it; it calls out unacceptable behaviour while reassuring the other that you are still mates, the relationship is still intact, and that this need not be a permanent rupture to things.
I hope to have you thinking about how tiny differences in language matter in building humane and effective organisations. Next week I’’ll be looking at the flip side; how to build microsolidarity and microaffirmations for positive relationships.
Dates and mates
I have known Rayya Ghul for almost three decades and her work is always outstanding, thoughtful and thorough. You can download all her microaggressions resources from her Researchgate page. (You may have to scroll down a bit, and all the different resources are listed separately.) Rayya is the co-author of Creating Positive Futures: Solution Focused Recovery from Mental Distress (now available as an e-book) and also the excellent SF self help book The Power Of The Next Small Step (also in e-book and paperback form).
Don’t miss the SoCoCon online conference on Sat-Sun 14-15 October 2023. It’s NOT a ‘social conservative’ event, it’s the Social Constructionist Conference for therapists and change agents, organised by Kirsten Dierfolf (SolutionsAcademy) and Jan Müller (iFR Hamburg). It’s free to join - register now at the website. I will be leading a workshop session on Moving from mind/body to person/world: the next step of de-muddling, and there are plenary panels including luminaries like Ken Gergen, Dan Hutto, Harlene Anderson and Jim Duvall. This is an amazing opportunity to hear from and engage with top thinkers in the world of changing conversations - do join us! More information in the short video below.