Dan Erwin: Persuasion

Five Laws for Interpersonal Sensitivity and Success

It’s not very often that you can learn strategies for talking and communicating that always are true. Much of the time in psychology, communication or sociology, strategies are very context oriented. The strategy will work in one situation, but not in another. That means that you’ll have a lot to learn to be successful. But when the strategy is a rule or a law, you can apply it to all kinds of situations in many different contexts.

Back in 2015, I wrote about a fascinating study by Rod Hart and Don Burks who surfaced a relationship between “expressive” communication and “instrumental” or “rhetorical communication.” They emphasized that expressive communication is very attractive in business because it involves frankness, honesty, openheartedness and non-manipulative intentions. But they also pointed out that as attractive as it is, expressive communication rarely provides people with effective means for creating and managing relationships. In contrast, the research found that instrumental or rhetorical communication is based on rules or laws, working successfully in nearly all situations.

The study remains highly relevant. Indeed, the information that was laid out by Hart and Burks is even more applicable and useful today. It’s far more applicable because business is highly interactive and not nearly as hierarchical today as it was in when the study was first completed.  Surprisingly, their research was first published in 1972, forty-three years ago. Not only is that study still relevant, but other studies have revealed that their study also remains highly accurate.  AdobeStock_75698876

Uniquely, the research revealed central tendencies in interpersonal communication. And, as Rod Hart puts it, “the law of central tendency is a law.” Rather than focus on so-called transcendent moments of interpersonal rhetoric, they focused on ordinary communication. it’s far more interesting and useful to “scrutinize real people who act like real people. They do it all the time, after all, so why not pay attention?” So, Hart and Burks paid attention to the regular, the repetitive and created a science of human behavior by focusing on central tendencies. So interpersonal success inevitably follows their science—whatever your business or profession.

Three communication tendencies
The research surfaced three communication tendencies for interpersonal communication. The first tendency, which you see often in business, is the “Noble Selves” tendency: the notion that people should not adapt to other people or to situations in any way that violates their beliefs, attitudes or values. That’s the nice way of talking about these people. But maybe you’ll remember these people if I remind you that many of these people are those that Bob Sutton refers to as “assholes” in his book on Asshole Theory.  Sometimes this is a commitment or a sickness of the individual, but more often it’s an angry practice growing out of lack of awareness and adaptive tools. Whatever. These people are difficult to work with whether they’re assholes—or, in other situations, the “righteous.”

The second tendency, which can be seen as “sucking up,” is what Hart and Burks called the rhetorical reflectors. These are people who present a different picture of themselves to every person and in every situation. They are careful to reflect the image that they think others want them to present.  This is not only true in business and the professions, but especially obvious in students. Students belonging to the most religiously fundamental groups have significant differences from students outside that same group. They found a positive relationship between rhetorical reflectiveness and fundamental religiosity as well as a negative relationship between the rhetorically sensitive and fundamental religiosity. 

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