The model is based on work I’ve done with groups—first with families, couples, and teenagers, and then with organizational teams and companies. I’ve been able to observe and track enough conversations in enough contexts that I think I have discovered a universal theory of the structure of communication. The theory suggests that communication can be deliberate; that leaders can measure and understand their impact (and everyone else’s impact) in any context where people make decisions. They can also design their own conversations to generate success or failure.
S+B: What do you mean by designing a conversation?
Kantor: Every conversation is made up of individual acts of speech: statements and questions. The speech act is my basic unit of analysis. Every speech act can be categorized as having one of four types of action (being a mover, opposer, follower, or bystander); one of three types of content (power, meaning, or affect); and one of three types of paradigms, or rules for establishing paradigmatic legitimacy (open, closed, or random). These categories combine into 36 kinds of speech acts, which are the building blocks of human interaction. They can be deliberately sequenced to set the direction of a conversation. Intervening with the right speech act at the right moment can catalyze a shift in thinking or action for everyone in the room.
I’ve worked with a number of organizational experts on this, and they’ve put the model under a lot of scrutiny during the past few years. There’s a basic skepticism, especially in the fields of economics and psychology, as to whether behavioral interventions actually produce results. This model allows us to test that question. You can train a team—let’s say a business executive and a group of direct reports—to explicitly shape their language according to this model. They can experiment with speech acts—deliberately trying out particular sequences—and see whether they produce higher performance or a change in the right direction.
S+B: What’s the difference between, say, a mover, an opposer, and a bystander?
KANTOR: First of all, they’re not categories of people. Although everyone has speech acts that they use more frequently than others, nobody is completely a mover, opposer, bystander, or follower. These are descriptions of vocal actions. Change your vocal action, and you can change how people perceive you. Change what people perceive, and you’ll change how they respond with their own vocal acts.
Let’s start with a single speech act: a statement you make. There are four basic roles you can play in a conversation. (I also call them action stances.) You can make a move: Start something new, like saying, “We need to spend less time in these meetings.” You can follow someone else’s move, by agreeing with it: “Yes, I’ve been concerned about the same thing.” You can oppose the move, raising objections or trying to stop it: “I don’t think that’s right. We need time to cover every topic on the agenda.” And then you can step back from the situation and stand by (or as I call it, “bystand”), reflecting on the actions being made, without agreeing or disagreeing: “Ian wants shorter meetings, Ralph wants to keep them the same length. What does everybody else think?”
A gifted communicator knows how to sequence these into compound actions. So if you’re dealing with fierce opposers, you don’t start off by opposing them. You bystand first. “I see how concerned you are about this decision, and it’s having an effect on the group.” Then you follow. “I think you have reason to be concerned.” Only then do you move. “It seems to me that we’ve got to change our decision and address your concerns, but we can’t lose the momentum of the original plan either.” Three different actions: bystand, follow, move.