Captain Subtext 101

The Hidden Superpower in Language                                                                               

Captain Subtext came into my life by the same route that many defining intellectual moments do, which is to say via The Telly (sorry Mr Draper, yes, books are great too). It was a slapstick comedy, and in my mind, humour is so often about truisms and this was definitely the case here. It is true to say that it didn’t impact my life in the seismic time-to-question-the-universe way that Monty’s Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ did; but I still feel the echoes of the bell that it rung in me that day. It was a BBC series called ‘Coupling’ and in this particular episode it was brilliantly exposed how the characters’ agendas were generally at direct odds with what they were saying. ‘Oh’, I thought at the time, ‘that’s quite clever’. I thought I left the idea there, but it has stayed with me, working quietly in the background.

It has become a big idea for me now, too big to go into in one blog, so I will just start with one aspect that I (we all?) witness almost daily, which starts with the idea that very few people listen with the aim of understanding the other person’s real message. To be fair to the listener, it will often be a message whose meaning is shrouded in the Great British Reserve, and which can often present in a passive-aggressive way. So, what I am saying is that it is not easy and, especially when I am tired I can be as guilty as the next person, BUT I am really trying because it is worth the effort when you get it right.

So, with this in mind, I first became aware of that I now call ‘Stop Words’ when I was starting a new job, wanting to get something done and constantly running into the same people who were always strangely obstructive and occasionally a bit rude about me personally (really, name-calling?).

Initially I was startled, a bit hurt and (under my best efforts at a calm exterior) reacted by taking it on the chin on the outside, but taking it personally on the inside. Happily, as a rule though, I don’t have a great capacity for dwelling on negative things for too long especially when I am busy, so I learned to reply with something along the lines of ‘Yes, I probably am a cow at times, but that’s not what’s important here’. As time went on though, we continued to work together and got to know each other. They started to trust my judgment and open up, and my unconscious brain began to join the dots. I am not saying that we became friends, just that we started to respect each other’s boundaries and realise each other’s value. The first ‘boundaries’ part of this is important because I realised that the rudeness that I had experienced had a parallel in the animal psychology that I had studied so long ago. You see, if you make an animal feel uncomfortable particularly one that isn’t confident of the situation (say a dog that is tied up or a cornered and skittish horse), then it will often react badly and excessively. People are the same; if you corner them, they will often lash out. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was any sort of threat but, over time, I realised that was how they had seen me. As they came to know me, they realised that I wasn’t an ambitious, power-hungry ladder climber but just someone who wanted to do the best possible job; then they relaxed.

A good recent example of a ‘Stop Word’ or more correctly a stop phrase, occurred recently when I was giving a talk to a local grammar school on some job skills (basically different ways they could stand their ground without being aggressive). I asked one of the quietest girls what she felt about a particular point. She was clearly startled to be asked and after a panicked pause, responded by saying forcefully ‘You’re cornering me!’. My immediate response was to back off, because I have never been someone comfortable with cornering people (there went that career in sales) but I thought about it and, with her permission, I later spoke to the class about how that was a good example of a ‘Stop Word’ or phrase. She felt cornered, she lashed out but, as we gained trust in each other we opened up. As a result, I believe that she was probably the person who got the most out of the talks.

Anyway, I hope the idea of ‘Stop Words’ gave you some idea of how language can gift you with the ability to not only see through people’s walls but also think about how your power and relationships interact. Over the next few weeks in the Captain Subtext series, I will cover the:

·       Psychology of Sorry:  Understanding what it really means and some options.

·       Making Monsters: How the British Reserve can create unfortunate side-effects.

·       The Science of the Sandwich: Some tips on how to deal with difficult people.

·       Dealing with False Friends: How to identify and combat people who undermine you.