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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Jack Gibb’s Supportive vs. Threatening Communication Behaviors

Also see Jane McGonigal’s counterfactual thinking.

Do your words convey respect, trust, and understanding?

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


How do your words affect the people around you? Do they inspire trust or incite fear? Do they convey respect and understanding, or do they threaten and intimidate?


Here’s a quick way to assess how you come across to others. It’s based on research by communication and organizational development expert Jack Gibb.


Which of the following sentences sound like something you might write or say?


1. If you were a team player, you’d pay attention to details and protocol.


2. This is a complex issue, so I’m open to your thoughts and ideas.


3. If you fix this problem for me and no one finds out about it, I’ll be good to you.


4. I understand why you’re angry and afraid.


5. If you don’t like the way I’m running this company, find another one to work for.


6. I’m not saying I have all the answers.


Before you score your choices according to Gibb’s six categories of “defensive and supportive communication behaviors,” let’s repeat the test. Which of the following sentences sound like something you would write or say? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague or friend which sentences sound like you, or compare them to the tone and wording of 10 messages in your sent messages folder.


1. When you consult with us before making changes, it’s easier for us to explain new policies to our customers.


2. If you want to get ahead in this company, you gotta play by my rules.


3. Let’s try something new and see what happens.


4. You say you feel overworked, but so do your colleagues – everyone feels overworked.


5. Even though I’m the boss, I alone cannot make this company great.


6. Believe me, I know more about this than anyone, including the experts.


As you may have noticed, the 12 numbered sentences above alternate between “threatening” (1, 3, 5; 2, 4, 6) and “supportive” (2, 4, 6; 1, 3, 5). Their numbering corresponds to Gibb’s six categories of communication behavior, which elicit either defense-arousing or trust-inspiring responses:


1. evaluation / description


2. control / problem orientation


3. strategy / spontaneity


4. neutrality / empathy


5. superiority / equality


6. certainty / provisionalism


Regarding category 4, neutrality sounds like a positive attribute, as in objectivity, but what Gibb is describing is an unwillingness to choose sides and take a stand, a kind of lip service or inauthentic validation of another person’s feelings. Also, note that empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone; empathy involves understanding another person’s perspective, situation, or life experience, particularly when that person is less fortunate or privileged than you.


The problem with defense-arousing language, according to Gibb, is that it causes people to feel insecure and it makes them “particularly likely to place blame, to see others as fitting into categories of good or bad, [and] to make moral judgments of their colleagues.”


So, what kind of communicator are you? What kind of environment – whether workplace, home, neighborhood, or civic – are your words creating?


More important, what kind of world do you want to live in?




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