Conflict is inevitable in most relationships. So, it’s useful to know how to engage in it without inflicting damage. This requires learning how to persuade by focusing more on the issue at hand rather than the personal qualities or mood states of the people involved. Most of us know this on some level. It’s one of those common sense rules of communication that’s uncommonly applied. 

Since we’re creatures of habit, we communicate in generally predictable ways unless we develop the capacity to reflect before acting. Of the many skills required to be politically astute, this is one of the most important. Skillful communicators know that words are weak vehicles of meaning. They realize and remember that many people choose among them quickly and that what is meant is often not what is said. 

This mindset is difficult to acquire. Most of us proceed each day to operate on unchecked inferences and judgments. We assume far more than we check, thereby trusting observations that are inaccurate. Arguments often result. 

I’ve devised a shorthand method for avoiding such communication pitfalls. It’s a mind-exercise routine to expand powers of observation. It bypasses the tendency to react impulsively. Over time, it becomes a way of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

The acronym for this is PURRR. It’s useful in helping to remember the steps involved and evokes the image of a cat calmly responding to its environment. Here are the steps involved:

—       PAUSE the next time you’re about to formulate a judgment about a person based on something he or she has said or done.

—       Make sure you UNDERSTAND what the person meant, which may involve inquiring rather than assuming.

—       REFLECT briefly on whether the intention was to insult you. In any case, try to place your focus on the issue at hand.

—       REINTERPRET what was said in a way that allows for a considered response rather than an impulsive reaction. Share that reinterpretation (e.g., “We actually agree more than meets the eye,” or “I believe there is only one rather small issue on which we still have some disagreement”).

—       REDIRECT the conversation onto a path that best serves your own or mutual goals (“If we resolve this one aspect, or agree to disagree, we’re on a good track”).

Let’s suppose your usually easygoing boss is in a foul mood. He approaches you and angrily says, “I need that report tomorrow.  No excuses.” You weren’t going to be late with the report. In fact, your work is never late. You are at a choice point. Do you react defensively?  You could ask, “What’s wrong with you?” But what’s the primary goal? Is it to get the work done or fix his unusual mood?  

It may be better to PAUSE. Upon REFLECTION, you may UNDERSTAND his comments were out of character. Perhaps he is under pressure. Rather than focus on his bad mood, which will delay your work and get you into a discussion at a time when he is angry, you could REINTERPRET the event as a one-off slip on his part. Next, REDIRECT the conversation onto a productive path. One way to do that is to simply reply, “I’ll have it on your desk first thing in the morning.” This response bypasses the relational (bad mood) component and instead focuses on the content of what he said (timely delivery of the report).

There are times when after applying the PURRR process, it’s clear that the comment was just too personal or outlandish to let it pass. At least you won’t have flown off the handle by making something that is about the other person (current mood) about you as well. If you’re prone to making disagreements into disagreeable situations, this technique may be just what you need.


Kathleen also blogs about communication, negotiation, and politics here.


Photo: Geir Solevag/