Monday, March 12, 2012

Having "that" conversation

Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about why key conversations are so hard for most people. We all know "that" talk you have with someone that you dread, those talks that seem confrontational or tend to be emotional. 

Here are a few tips to have in mind that will keep these difficult conversations manageable:
Steer clear of combat mode
When difficult conversations turn toxic, it's often because we've made a key mistake: we've fallen into a combat mindset. You set up a winner and a loser; who's going to win? Well, you hope it's you! In reality, when this happens, everyone loses. The real enemy is your combat approach.

Its complicated
Think about it, if what you need to talk about was easy, you probably wouldn’t even be worried about the conversation. It’s because there’s a lot going on that you need this chat. Don’t over simplify a bunch of things and ball them up into one little conversation. Remember that if it was simple you wouldn’t be having this conversation. Complicated is ok; just remind yourself of that!

Give a little respect
Respect the person you’re talking to. Respect the problem you're trying to resolve. And, respect yourself. Making sure that you respond in a way you can later be proud of will prevent you from being thrown off course if your counterpart isn't seeing the situation the same way you are.

State what your really want
Fear, anger, embarrassment, defensiveness – any number of unpleasant feelings can course through us during a conversation we'd rather not have. Some of us react by confronting more aggressively; others, by rushing to smooth things over. We might even see-saw between both counterproductive poles. Instead, move to the middle: state what you really want. The tough emotions won't evaporate. But with practice, you will learn to focus on the outcome you want in spite of them.

Avoid taking the bait
Every one has a weak spot. And when someone finds ours – whether inadvertently, with a stray arrow, or because he is hoping to hurt us – it becomes even harder to stay out of the combat mentality. Whatever it is, take the time to learn what hooks you. Just knowing where you're vulnerable will help you stay in control when someone pokes you there.

Get rid of the script
If we're sure a conversation is going to be tough, it's instinctive to rehearse what we'll say. But a difficult conversation is not a performance, with an actor and an audience. Once you've started the discussion, your counterpart could react in any number of ways – and having a "script" in mind will hamper your ability to listen effectively and react accordingly. Instead, prepare by asking yourself: 1. What is the problem? 2. What would my counterpart say the problem is? 3. What's my preferred outcome? 4. What's my preferred working relationship with my counterpart? 

You know what they say about assumptions
We tend to forget that we don't have access to anyone's intentions but our own. Remember that you and your counterpart are both dealing with this ambiguity. If you get stuck, a handy phrase to remember is, "I'm realizing as we talk that I don't fully understand how you see this problem." Admitting what you don't know can be a powerful way to get a conversation back on track.

Keep sight of the goal
Go into conversations with a clear, realistic preferred outcome. Remember how you want your relationship with your counterpart to be. Think carefully about any obstacles that could interfere with either the outcome or the relationship. Remember, "winning" is not a realistic outcome. By doing so, you'll be less likely to get thrown off course by either thwarting ploys or your own emotions.

When we're caught off-guard, we're more likely to fall back into old, ineffective habits like the combat mentality. If you're not the one initiating the tough conversation, or if a problem erupts out of nowhere, stick to these basics:

content clear
tone neutral

When disagreements flare, you'll be more likely to navigate to a productive outcome – and emerge with your reputation intact.

My thoughts were based on Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them by Holly Weeks.

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