Sunday, September 02, 2007

Message and Metamessage, Integrity

When I was much younger I was taught a lesson about message and metamessage. The one everyone knows is the deadly question "does this dress make me look fat?" That is really two groups of questions: (a) is this an item of clothing that I should buy or wear that would make me look good and (b) do you love me, do you find me attractive? Whatever answer you give to the question has to provide clear messages in response to both questions, not just the one that appears to be asked.

I used to be bluntly honest because I was socially inept and didn't know better. I didn't interject myself, and I wasn't rude, but when people asked, I would tell them the truth. In my ward at school that had led several people to think I was a compliment machine because the truth that the people I was talking to did not know was better than they thought or hoped. But ...

After I failed in the role of "compliment machine," someone came to me and explained to me where I had gone wrong. They rightly guessed that I did not want to hurt anyone's feelings. I immediately changed how I talked to people, because the message that was true, the metamessage, was that they were valuable and of worth. I did not want that obscured by responding to only the face of the surface question.

At the same time I learned more about negotiation. In negotiation, according to the accepted statistics, about 40% of the people are "aggressive." Without fail, all aggressive style negotiators lie. The best do it transparently, naturally and, err, honestly -- that is, they believe their lies and are unaware they are lying. In simulations, during debriefing, participants asked about how and why they think they did what they did reveal that even afterwards they believe the lies they've told.

I'm an attorney, a litigator. Much of what I do is negotiation. Much of it is attempting to find the truth. I'm lucky in that I work in an environment that is supportive of finding and dealing with the truth. Even so, I find that I have to watch myself to see that I live up to the expectations and beliefs of those I work with and against.

In that context I've been reading the book The Bottom Line On Integrity. Over and over again the book reaches and reflects on how our environment is filled with times and places where we either do not tell the truth or where our message and metamessage are out of sync (think of any lottery advertisement). Reading the book has helped me reflect.

In a way, integrity can seem like a literacy test. In the law and in the legal ethics of negotiation, it is often the choice of words that makes a difference. I.E. "That is the limit of my authority" vs. "That is what I'm willing to do right now." The first is a lie that is so common that courts have held that it doesn't count because no one could believe it. The second is the sort of thing that is true by definition.

But in life, integrity is something more, and is a collection of skills as much as it is an attitude. To act with integrity requires more than an intent to be honest, especially when message and metamessage clash or where the truth and bearing an honest witness may differ (there is a difference, many times, between "the truth" and the "whole truth").

I'm still thinking.

For something completely different:

and, my other blog, with different thoughts:

I also was impressed by the title of this post:

Do Not Live an Authentic Life - Live a Moral One


Anonymous said...

It does take skill to be able to share feedback while sparing feelings. One of the things that I like about this blog is that you are very nice. I am sure that you could have been brutally honest with me at times as I am far too open and you may disagree with me. But you probably couldn't be any harder on me than I am on myself at times so I thank you for being nice. The people who I count as my friends are pretty easy going. As far as work goes, there are times when I hold my tongue when I would rather say a thing or two to customers. Sometimes I am skilled in helping to turn the tone of the conversation around. But if someone is a real meanie, I usually do the bare minimum and count myself good not to tell them what I really think of them.

Lisa M. said...

Interesting discussion-

I've found, that I often say things, that may or not be the truth, depending on my interpretation of the question, and my emotional reaction as well.

I've found this to be very quite peculiar in retrospect. And, in a way, bothersome.

I've been asked the same question, by two different people, and two different times, and my reaction as well as my answer, were completely different.

Perhaps it is, because I don't know my own mind (Heart)?

I do know, that because of reflection I am slower to respond, and I think more so, about my answers.

This was a good read, Stephen.