Here is a brief article I wrote that appears in the current issue of Etc: A Review of General Semantics, 66, no. 3 (2009), 248-253. What I tried to do was to identify the characteristics of effective and ineffective conversations through this "cooler" idea.
Conversational Coolers and Warmers
In the little-seen but critically-praised 2003 movie, The Cooler, Bernie Lootz (played by William H. Macy) is the quintessential loser; he's estranged from his son, his marriage fell apart, his cat died, and he's all alone. Whatever Bernie does turns bad and he's soon forced by Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to work the gambling casino floor as a “cooler”. Because he’s such a loser, Bernie only has to stand next to a winning player to cool the player down, stop the winning streak, and, in effect, turn a winner into a loser.
Although the concept of the gambling casino cooler seems strange, it works as a useful metaphor for lots of communication situations. For example, there are audience coolers who make public speakers wish they never walked to the podium, interviewing coolers who make applicants feel like they have no chance of employment--ever, and small group coolers who make the normally pleasant group interaction a boring and unproductive experience. But, it’s the conversational cooler that is perhaps the most easily recognized.
The conversational cooler makes the conversation awkward, unpleasant, unsatisfying, and, all in all, a not very enjoyable experience--one you want to get over with as soon as possible and not to repeat anytime soon. To extend the metaphor just a bit, the conversational warmer, on the other hand, makes the conversation smooth, pleasant, and mutually satisfying, an enjoyable experience and one you'd likely want to extend and experience again real soon. And the communication question is How. How do coolers and warmers do what they do? Here’s a starter list of ten conversational cooler and the corresponding warmer types.
This conversational cooler is critical and frequently finds fault with something or someone. The problem with this is that you never know when you’re going to come under attack yourself and so you're on guard, almost defensive. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are supportive. They make you feel good and enable you to drop your guard and so you may self-disclose more freely, knowing you're in a supportive atmosphere. Conversational coolers are negative and often echo the voice of doom and often at the most inappropriate times. Conversational warmers are positive; they don’t have their head in the sand but they can see, and talk about, and take joy in the positive side.
This conversational cooler is disconfirming, and rarely acknowledges the contributions or value of what others say. They make little or no nonverbal contact, avoiding eye contact or touching. They might ignore the other person's requests, not respond appropriately to questions, or ignore phone calls or e-mails. Conversational warmers are confirming; they acknowledge the presence and the contributions of the other persons and try their best to understand what others are saying. They're responsive to the other's communication whether the interaction is face-to-face or computer mediated.
This conversational cooler is self-focused and engages in conversation without concern for the other participants. This is the author in the old joke who talked incessantly about his book and then, finally, said, “Enough about what I think of my book, what do you think of my book?” Conversational warmers are other-focused and engage the other person in real dialogue; they really want to hear what you have to say and you can tell from their facial expressions, focused eye contact, and learning posture. Egotistic coolers are usually monologuers; they give speeches. They are the talkers and believe others should remain listeners. Conversational warmers, in contrast, are dialoguers; they talk and they listen. They're interested in the other person, the person's ideas and feelings. They respond to what the other person says and always give others the opportunity to speak. Dialoguers see conversation as a back-and-forth process, with short rather than long speech sequences and frequent feedback cues.
The Passive Participant
This conversational cooler is passive and participates only remotely in the conversation; often they’re preoccupied with their iPhones or Blackberries. They rarely give feedback cues to show they're listening. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are active and participate in the conversation with interest and attention. Conversational coolers are neutral; they make no effort to feel what you’re feeling. Conversational warmers are empathic; they want to feel what you’re feeling (at least to some degree) and they also let you know that they understand you on some deeper level.
The Cultural Insensitive
This conversational cooler is culturally insensitive, often ethnocentric (believing his or her culture and way of thinking is the correct or superior way and that others are just not as good), and often talks and thinks in stereotypes. They're indiscriminators; they discriminate not between but against. Conversational warmers are culturally sensitive, acknowledging differences with respect, and distinguishing individuals from the group. They rarely commit the fallacy of indiscrimination and mentally or explicitly index their statements--their verbs as well as their nouns.
The Impolite Clod
The impolite conversationalist can do so in one of two basic ways, borrowing insights from sociologists Goffman (1967) and Brown and Levinson (1987) who distinguish between positive face needs (feeling worthy and important) and negative face needs (being autonomous and doing as one wants). Supporting these needs is an act of politeness and attacking these needs is an act of impoliteness. Coolers attack positive face needs by, say, making the person feel unimportant or unequal and using compliments or courtesies or politeness tags such as please and thank you rarely if ever. Conversational coolers are impolite in their tendency to interrupt, often with the goal of changing the topic to one they are more interested in or knowledgeable about. In contrast, conversational warmers are supportive of positive face needs; they’re civil and respectful of the other persons. Treating the other person politely means making the person feel comfortable and important and deserving of respect. Instead of the cooler's interrupting, the warmer asks questions and otherwise encourages the person to continue talking.
The second way coolers are impolite is in their attacking the person's autonomy (negative face needs) by for example imposing on the person's time, demanding rather than requesting, or putting people in a position where they are asked to do anything they wouldn't do of their own accord. To warm the conversation, the opposite would hold--no impositions and, if an imposition has to be made, to preface it with appropriate politeness expressions (please, would you mind) and an understanding that you respect the person's autonomy--(I know you don't like having dinner with my work colleagues and I don't blame you, but this time . . . ).
This type of cooler may be deceptive in a variety of ways. They might lie by exaggeration where they, for example, lead people to believe that, they earn more money than you do or that their grades are better than they are, or that your relationship is more satisfying than it really is. Sometimes the deceit results from minimizing the facts, minimizing the lack of money (we have more than enough), the importance of poor grades, or relationship dissatisfaction. At other times, the deceit is a simple substitution where you exchange the truth for a lie—for example, I wasn’t at the bar, I stopped in at Starbucks for coffee. Still another is equivocation or being ambiguous and leading people to think something different from your intention. That outfit really is something, very interesting instead of Ugh! And of course coolers can lie by omission, by not sending certain messages, omitting those things that would be seen negatively and just including the positives. Regardless of how they bend the truth, the conversational implication is that you can never be quite sure if what you’re hearing is the truth, a half-truth, or an out-and-out lie. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are truthful. You don’t have to guess about the veracity of what they say; they have a history of honesty that you can rely on.
Conversational coolers are present during the conversation but you never feel they're really listening. They don't give listening cues like head nods and smiles and verbal listening cues such as hmm or I see, and the occasional question. The conversational warmer is the active listener we read about in textbooks. The warmer listens actively to both the thoughts and feelings of the other person and paraphrases the speakers meaning to ensure he or she understands and to encourage the speaker to continue, expresses understanding of the speakers thoughts and feelings, and asks questions of understanding rather than challenge.
Conversational coolers are inflexible; they don't adapt their communication style on the basis of the situation, the topic of conversation, the person to whom they're speaking, or the channel through which their message is sent. Warmers are flexible and adapt to the different situations. Small talk situations on the elevator require a different style of conversation than does the dinner talk of a close knit family--the cooler doesn't recognize this; the warmer does.
The Mindless Thinker
The mindless thinking cooler is illogical in lots of ways, all familiar in General Semantics and sometimes referred to as cognitive distortions--ways of thinking that hinder straight thinking.
For example, the know-it-alls, rarely if ever using an implicit or explicit etc. Consequently, they don't do much listening; after all, why listen when you know it all. Warmers, on the other hand, admit ignorance and recognize in their own speaking and listening the possibility and the willingness to pursue additional information.
The polarizers think in either-or terms, black or white, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, for us or against us and consequently present an over-simplified view of the world. Warmers recognize the continuous nature of most of reality.
Static thinkers rarely update their thinking or their statements. What was true yesterday is obviously true today, they assume. Consequently, their perceptions are often inaccurate, not allowing for inevitable change. Warmers see each event, as T. S. Eliot said in The Cocktail Party, "at every meeting we are meeting a stranger."
The fact-inference confuser makes little distinction between facts and inferences and frequently act on inferences as if they were facts and, not surprisingly making lots of mistakes--relational, financial, occupational. Warmers treat facts as facts and inferences as inferences, is prepared to be proven wrong, and is therefore less likely to be hurt if and when proven wrong.
The intensionally oriented confuse the word and the thing, often treating the word as if it were the thing. Warmers, instead, recognize perhaps the most general principle of all: meaning is in people, not in words. The cooler frequently bypasses, failing to recognize that the same word can mean different things to different people and that different words can mean the same thing to different people. The warmer understands how words and things are related and the often disconnect between words and meanings and so checks his or her perceptions and, when in doubt, asks questions rather than operate with false assumptions.
Conversational coolers are all around us but with the insight of Pogo, we will have recognized that we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals of language usage. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York: Pantheon.
Joseph A. DeVito is Professor Emeritus of Communication, Hunter College of the City University of New York and the author of several communication textbooks.