Solving Conflict Through a McDonalds Order
Using the “drive-through talking” technique from Gary Smalley.
Talking with other people is downright difficult. The Harvard Negotiation Project notes this in their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Authors Stone, Patton, and Heen list all the topics we wish to avoid when speaking with others, from gender and sexuality to race, politics, and religion.
Difficult Conversations are Common
Difficult conversations can happen more often than we think. The authors define them as occurring whenever we feel vulnerable, when our self-esteem is impacted, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or whom we are discussing it with, and when the issues at stake are important and uncertain. Even without controversial topics, communication is personal. The action itself is also complex.
Communication as a Process is Complex
The traditional method for introducing how communication works is known as the Transmission Model. The model shows a linear process that says communication is a sender transmitting a message to a receiver.
SENDER → the message → RECEIVER
Such an explanation simplifies a back-and-forth interaction and assumes that the receiver is going to interpret the message how the sender intended. It also assumes that the message will not be interrupted. While the model is widely critiqued by communication scholars, it is an excellent starting point to understanding how complex “sending messages” can be and how easy it is to have interruptions and misunderstandings.
From Complex to a Drive-Through Order at McDonalds
When my sister and I were younger we used to get into fights. That is typical for siblings, but what was not so typical was how our parents had us resolve our conflicts. This was the result of having two well-read parents who actively sought out books on parenting and marriage and went on to do marriage counseling.
Every time my sister and I would have a loud disagreement, my parents would sit us down to practice Gary Smalley’s “drive-through talking” technique. My father would say, “Picture yourself at a McDonalds. Now one of you is going to drive up to the window where you order while the other listens, and then you will switch.”
One of us would start, and acting as the McDonalds employee, ask, “What’s on your mind?” or “How can I help you?” The other would answer while the employee listened attentively. Then, the employee would respond with, “So, what you are saying is…”, repeating the order to confirm they got it right. The customer would say yes or no. The employee would ask, “What else? What am I missing?” When the customer was satisfied and done sharing, the employee would end with, “Thank you for sharing.” Then we would switch roles.
My parents also asked that whoever was playing the customer use statements that focus on the self. Instead of saying, “You did this,” the customer would say, “I feel _____ when _____” and “I notice _____ , I prefer _____.”
In short, it went like this:
McDonalds employee: “What’s on your mind?” or “How can I help you?”
Customer: “I feel ____when…” and “I notice ____ , I prefer…”
McDonalds employee: *listens* Then, “So, what you are saying is…”
Customer: “Yes” or “No”
McDonalds employee: “What else? What am I missing?”
McDonalds employee: “Thank you for sharing.”
This helped my sister and I to share our stories, perspectives, feelings, and preferences. While the Transmission Model of communication shows a simplified, linear process, I believe communication is more like the Coordinated Management of Meaning theory created by W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen.
This theory asserts that “persons-in-conversation co-create their own social realities and are simultaneously shaped by the worlds they create.” I saw this in the conflicts between my sister and I as we would unravel each of our stories of how we both experienced and interpreted the same conflict.
We each had a reality in our head about what occurred and what that meant and we needed to share these in order to move forward into a new social reality. One where, hopefully, we could come together, forgive, have action-steps for the future, and maybe even order ice creams from McDonalds.