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Are you communicating above the line?

A good pause is the starting point for improving your conversations, asking better questions and staying "above the line" as a communicative leader.

5 min read


Are you communicating above the line?

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Weaving Influence is a full-service digital marketing agency. Since launching 10 years ago, Weaving Influence has helped clients launch more than 150 books, carving its niche in working with authors, thought leaders, coaches, consultants, trainers, nonprofit leaders and speakers to market their services and books. This post is by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres.

Everything we do is mitigated through conversation, including the conversations we have with ourselves. Most of the time our conversations are filtered through unconscious frames, which lie below the surface of our awareness. 

These filters influence what we hear, see and do. They skew our interactions to align with our assumptions, worldview, biases, expectations, perceptions, emotional state, fears and beliefs. Without intending to, these hidden filters distort our ability to practice effective communication skills, especially if our defenses are triggered. 

If you’re struggling to apply your communication skills, especially in tough or difficult conversations, this may be the reason. The solution: Make those invisible filters visible.

Above and below the line

Think of an imaginary line drawn across the middle of a page. Above the line, our conversations add value. They support strong relationships and inspire possibility and goal achievement. Above the line, we are connected with others, engaged and focused on moving toward shared outcomes. When we are above the line, we are open to having our unconscious drivers challenged, which makes it less likely for them to skew the conversation.

Below the line, our conversations devalue people and situations. They weaken relationships, inhibit creativity and critical thinking, and stand in the way of success. Below the line, we are defensive, critical, stressed and closed. 

When we are below the line, our unconscious drivers are in charge of our side of the conversation. It becomes almost impossible to use good communication practices effectively from below the line. This is why it’s important to tune in to these unconscious filters, shining a light on how they might be influencing us.

Tune in

To communicate from above the line, the technique we recommend is simple: Pause, breathe and get curious.

  1. Pause. Stop.
  2. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system — calming any stress response, widening your vision and boosting your ability to think critically, be creative and act choicefully. Conscious breathing puts you in the driver’s seat and slows your defensive reactions.
  3. Get curious. Expand your awareness by asking generative questions, ones that help you shift the way you’re thinking and feeling. Such questions as these make the invisible visible: 
  • “What’s going on with me? 
  • What am I feeling and where’s that coming from? 
  • What am I assuming?  
  • Why am I particularly stressed about this situation?
  • Did I make that up? What don’t I know? 

You can also get curious about the other person and the situation. For example: 

  • What might be going on for them? 
  • What might be driving their words? 
  • What do they really want to happen?
  • What are they really saying?

These three simple steps transform our capacity to come from a place of genuine curiosity, where we can deliberately choose our words and foster a conversation worth having. 

Generative questions shift us away from self-protection (the primary task of below-the-line thinking) by changing our neurobiochemistry, giving us greater access to empathy, creativity, and critical thinking. Our biochemistry enables us to communicate with a more open mind, heart and will — the keys to effective interactions and connection to others.

Next time you’re struggling to have a conversation worth having in the midst of a difficult or challenging situation, tune in: pause, breathe and get curious. Then, from a place of conscious intent, apply your communication practices. 

We recommend asking generative questions and using positive framing, the two simple practices that fuel productive and meaningful engagement—anytime, anywhere, and any situation. To learn more about these two practices, check out these SmartBrief articles: “We’re All Leaders When It Comes to Conversation” and “The Right Framing and Questions Can Lead to Productive Conversations.”


Cheri Torres is CEO and lead catalyst of Collaborative by Design, a consulting firm that helps organizations improve performance, retain talent and transform communication and culture. Torres has more than 35 years of leadership, teamwork, strategic planning and culture transformation experience. 

Jackie Stavros is management professor at the College of Business and Information Technology, Lawrence Technological University, and an Appreciative Inquiry advisor at the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry. Stavros has more than 30 years of leadership, strategic planning and change management experience. 

Stavros and Torres have been researching, writing, consulting and speaking on Appreciative Inquiry since 1996 and are co-authors of “Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.” Download a free conversational tool kit and learn more at the Conversations Worth Having website.

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