"Be the GPS: Navigating Interpersonal Conversations" | Teachers College Columbia University

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"Be the GPS: Navigating Interpersonal Conversations"

"Be the GPS: Navigating Interpersonal Conversations"
Have you ever been conversing with someone and wished you could see those invisible thought bubbles over their heads that could tell you what they were really thinking – a kind of conversational Global Positioning System that could tell you what to say next?

A session at Academic Festival entitled, “Be the GPS:  Navigating Interpersonal Conversations,” gave participants an opportunity to do just that, as Debra Noumair (EdD ’87), Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, led two of her former TC students, Caroline Rosen (EdM ’89) and Marcy Mann (MA ’87), in a demonstration of Interpersonal Process Recall (IPR), a communication technique which Noumair teaches in her organization development classes.

Noumair, Director of the Advanced Organization Development and Human Resource Program, described the fundamentals of IPR, which was invented in the late 1960s by Norman Kagan and colleagues at Michigan State University for use in training counselors and therapists. Now, IPR is used in many other contexts – in the workplace or with family or friends – as a model for improving interpersonal skills.

With IPR, people have a videotaped conversation and then review the tape with a trainer, who encourages them to notice hidden feelings or thoughts that were not expressed but which affected the conversation’s direction and outcome. It was designed to help counselors and therapists become more aware of their covert thoughts and feelings and those of their clients, and to express them without negative consequences, thereby improving the counselor-client relationship.

Rosen and Mann demonstrated the method by having a conversation videotaped and then replayed, with each able to stop the tape at any part in the conversation and vocalize what she was thinking or feeling at the time. Rosen, whose doctorate is in Psychological Counseling, is a former teacher and school counselor who spent the past 20 years raising two children, both of whom are now in college. As a new Empty-Nester, Rosen said she feels she should look for a job, but then voiced some ambivalence and “pressure” to do so. Mann, the Academic Dean at Professional Children’s School whose master’s degree is in Human Development, tried to draw Rosen out by telling Rosen she would “like to hear more about that pressure.” But that shut Rosen down and derailed the conversation.

While replaying the video, Rosen admitted she wasn’t interested in discussing the matter on an emotional level. Instead, she was looking for more practical advice about the mechanics of looking for a job. And Mann observed that she had misread Rosen and offered advice before Rose was ready to take it.

In any conversation, Noumair said, at least four different response modes are possible. In the exploratory response, a person asks an open-ended question to elicit a response (this could include the familiar question posed by journalists and psychotherapists – “How did that make you feel?”). In the second, “listening response,” one speaker paraphrases sometimes complex statements of the other, in order to signal that he or she is listening carefully. The third, “affective response,” explores the “emotional tenor” of the conversation, Noumair said, with a response such as, “it sounds like you’re pretty angry” about the situation the person is describing. Finally, there is the “honest labeling response,” a direct, honest characterization, a “frank but not brutal” assessment or opinion about something the other person has said, such as, “I don’t think you’re going to get very far with that strategy for asking for a raise.”

Someone proficient in IPR instinctively chooses the response that is most likely to get beneath the surface meaning of what is being said and elicit truthful, emotionally authentic responses. “The important part is to bring to the surface what you’re not saying, that is affecting the conversation,” Noumair she.

Published Thursday, May. 10, 2012