Conversational Coolers and Warmers

By DeVito, Joseph A. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Conversational Coolers and Warmers

DeVito, Joseph A., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

In the little-seen but critically praised 2003 movie, The Cooler, Bernie Lootz (played by William H. Macy) is the quintessential loser: he is estranged from his son and is all alone and recently his marriage fell apart and his cat died. Whatever Bernie does turns bad, and he is soon forced by casino-boss Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to work the gambling floor as a "cooler." Because he is 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 had 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 is 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 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 would 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 is a starter list of ten conversational coolers and the corresponding warmer types.

The Critic

This conversational cooler is critical and frequently finds fault with something or someone. The problem with this is that you never know when you are going to come under attack, and so you are on guard, almost defensive. Conversational warmers, on the other hand, are supportive. They make you feel good and enable you to drop your guard, so you may self-disclose more freely, knowing you are 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, talk about, and take joy in the positive side.

The Disconfirmer

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 other persons and try their best to understand what others are saying. They are responsive to the other's communication, whether the interaction is face-to-face or computer-mediated.

The Egoist

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 monologuists; 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 are interested in the other person and in 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. …

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