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Published in Professional Learning

Three Point Communication 

Difficult, or awkward, conversations are best approached in a way that may, at first, seem counter intuitive: not looking eye-to-eye. Learn more.


Two point communication

Yes, it does sound rather strange to be calling the typical way we converse as being two-point communication. But if you look at it for an instant, it’s clear that’s exactly what it is. There are two points: your face and the other’s face. They face each other directly. Nothing wrong in that. In fact, it would be pretty alienating if it weren’t the case.

But hold on a minute and consider what it’s like during a difficult conversation. You know, one where you feel very awkward, if not upset or anxious. An example of this might be if you were receiving a ticking-off by your boss over an infringement of protocol. Or even during a performance management meeting and you are receiving feedback on your performance — the part everyone is waiting for…the areas of improvement. Fine words that don’t fool you. You know it really means weaknesses’. In fact, being disguised somehow makes it seem all the more ominous. Too dangerous to be explicit and honest.

Let’s get back to the experience of receiving such honest yet potentially hurtful comments. However hard we try to protect ourselves with professional armour, we still feel those words of criticism as little arrows, attacking us. And automatically, they will set off a series of physiological reactions: tension in the stomach, breathlessness, headache, neck and shoulder stiffness. Equally forcibly, our internal commentator will rattle off well-worn grumbles such as it’s not fair!”, why me?”, poor me”, s/he hates me” and so on. You know how it goes, don’t you?

Well if that’s your experience, imagine how negative it must be for your students, however benevolent your intentions. In fact, sometimes, in the effort to appear more human, we often increase and intensify the eye contact. A mistake.

Three point communication

By simply moving to a side-by-side position, the receiver of the difficult communication will feel better. Instead of having difficult things to hear directed at her face, they will be directed instead at what we are going to call a third point. The introduction of a third point offers a shared focus towards which the speaker can direct his comments. Often, this third point will be a visual of some sort.

Try it out

This is nothing to believe here. But it may be well worth trying it out for yourself. Try it out at school when giving feedback on transgressive behaviour by looking at and pointing to, say, a poster of the class rules. Or, if you are a line manager of some sort, using a checklist with which to explain areas for development.

Once the difficult part has been conveyed, it’s a good idea to finish off the conversation with some business-as-usual eye contact. And in that more typical conversational dynamic, remember to say some nice things. This will secure the relationship between you two.


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