May I . . . ?

At a street fair, you bump into an acquaintance and you say, “Hello, my dear!” Whether you do it consciously or intuitively, even before you open your mouth you’re already paying attention to what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.

The what, the how, and the to-whom of communication is worth studying, since it’ll help you become a better listener and speaker. Here are some tools I’ve used over the years. They’re based on two simple principles and one simple procedure. The principles are the awareness that there exist multiple modes of communication, and the awareness that there exist multiple frames of mind among your listeners. The procedure is to ask your listener permission to use one of several special communication styles.

"May I give you a compliment?"


Many people are uncomfortable receiving compliments. Some grow up with a culture of self-effacement, where sidetracking compliments is a way of life for everyone in the family or the community. Others have low self-esteem and find that a compliment, however sincere and well-meant, doesn’t match the way they feel about themselves. The compliment might strike the listener as wrong or even dirty, and you’ll be rebuked for having proffered it. Asking for permission to issue a compliment has a possibly hypnotic result: your listener probably has never, ever had the experience of being asked to give permission, much less the permission to receive a compliment.

"May I give you a compliment that risks sounding like an insult to begin with?"


Recently, an Englishwoman who took one of my workshops gave the group a short presentation on the English tradition of politeness, deference, and indirectness. She told us almost nothing about the tradition, instead deflecting attention and asking us what we thought this tradition entailed. My compliment? “You succeeded by failing, and you failed by succeeding—because you told us nothing, thereby perfectly illustrating the indirect approach.” She saw the joke and took the compliment.

"May I speak my heart?"


If you say “yes,” I might reveal some deeply held emotions, or speak harshly of someone, or pass judgment, or swear, or be politically incorrect. Anything goes, because it’s the heart talking, not the mind! And we all know that the heart beats, and blood rushes through it and makes it pump. Or something like that. After I receive the go-ahead to speak my heart, I lift my self-censure temporarily and just bleed left and right. The thing is, I’m so polite about getting permission that my bleeding is sort of organized, directed, and purposeful. Which is the point of the whole exercise.

"May I babble incoherently for a while?"


I like asking this question with a sweet, reassuring smile, indicating that I’m in control of my lack of control. I might indeed babble incoherently, but I have things to say even if they aren’t fully articulated. The babble is a sort of performance or musical style, with the potential to caress the listener’s mind and rearrange its furniture. I exaggerate the babbling on occasion, making fun of myself and earning the goodwill of my listener, who relaxes and more or less understands what I’m trying to say.


"May I answer your question indirectly?"

Some questions are impossible to answer. They carry too much information, too many assumptions, too many needs and wants on the part of the person asking them. By requesting permission seemingly to go off subject or seemingly to avoid the question altogether, I acknowledge the question’s complexity and my inability to answer it in a concise manner. Then I can choose one or two aspects from the complex question to weave a path forward.

"May I tell you a joke?"


Someone talks to you with deep feelings about an important subject. If you happen to know of an anecdote that addresses the talker’s needs, or takes his or her mind off the urgent feelings for a little while, or gives the listener a chance to breathe and relax, telling a joke is can be very helpful. Ask for permission with a friendly tone of voice, indicating that you heard the other person’s feelings and you aren’t planning to trample on him or her with your joke.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara