When the more you talk, the deeper into trouble you get, you need to go back to the drawing board. You may mean to communicate clearly, but you often end up feeling that you haven’t made yourself at all. In emotionally charged situations, bad practice, poor skills, and faulty logic all can muddy our attempts to communicate clearly. We often make things worse rather than better. Fortunately for most of us, most of the time, we are pretty effective communicators. Unfortunately for many us, when our communication skills tend to go downhill is when we are talking to people who matter the most to us. The reasons why this happens are thoroughly discussed in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, their 2002 book. In this article, I want to look at the choices that are yours to make. There are tactics that you can use as well as tactics you should avoid if you want your conversations to be productive. We’ll also consider how to neutralize some of those destructive tactics when they are used on you.
A word about context:
When we face an important conversation with our emotions roaring, or if we allow them to boil over during the course of a conversation, we are headed for trouble. Emotions cloud our logic, ask any competitive athlete. When you normally don’t go into any important situation, planning to shoot from the hip rather than to prepare before hand, why do you assume it will be productive when talking to loved ones, partners, allies, or collaborators? That’s a bad plan and typically leads to breakdowns or blowups. While we will discuss the details below, for now accept the fact that you will get farther, faster, if you begin by calming yourself, identifying your goals for this conversation, establishing a shared purpose for you and your partner in conversation, and then dealing with a narrow, specific focus. If you have tons of issues (and when you first try this you might) then have tons of separate conversations. We aren’t nearly as good at multitasking as we think we are. We are even worse at managing multiple themes in a complicated, emotional conversation. If we can think of a disappointing conversation as a “sow’s ear,” let’s look at how to turn it into the silk purse of a win/win outcome.
1. Know where you’re going before starting out:
Sometimes we are so mad, frustrated, hurt, or disappointed that we just want to act to ease the pressure and release the feelings. My advice is that wherever possible you resist that urge, at least where conversation is the reaction of choice. Step away. Get control of your emotions. Take stock of what you are feeling (and wanting) before opening your mouth to speak. You should know what you want to accomplish in this situation. You should own your input into the development of this situation. You should able to share how the other person’s behavior has affected you. You should have a suggested plan for how you and your communication partner might act in the future to avoid negative consequences. If there is an understanding gap between you and this person, what’s your strategy for narrowing that gap? When you have calmed down enough to believe that you can stay calm through the conversation, approach the other person and ask to set a time that works for both of you to have a conversation when you can really focus on each other with minimal distractions. Depending on the circumstances you might share your purpose for the upcoming conversation so that they might gather their thoughts. Remember, your goal is to create an outcome that works for both of you.
2. The high road or the low road, it’s your choice:
What’s your point? If you didn’t do so before, establish a shared purpose for this conversation – don’t ambush your conversation partner (even if he or she is your child). Nothing prepares another person to be guarded and defensive like finding themselves in a conversation that is quickly heading onto dangerous, touchy, or disputed territory with no idea where you are planning to take the conversation. If you want someone to listen to you and to hear your point of view, start out by letting them know where you would like the conversation to go and what benefits you’d like to realize for the both of you.
3. Start from a place of dignity, courtesy, and respect:
These conversation tips are designed to help you talk to people with whom you have an on-going relationship. If this is your exit conversation (if you are ending the relationship), then have at it; otherwise, respect yourself and the person to whom you’re conversing. Avoid insults. Don’t use ridicule or sarcasm. Don’t impugn the other person’s motives or intentions. It might feel good at the moment but it will cost you a lot in the long run to indulge those impulses. If those behaviors are hurled back at you, step back and don’t take the bait. Ask if the other person is ready to have this conversation constructively. If they’re not ready, reschedule this conversation. Another tactic that is unproductive is to exaggerate. Avoid the words “always” and “never.” People seldom “always” or “never” do things. Besides, you aren’t talking about always or never; you’re talking about a specific instance. On the extremely rare off chance that they always or never do the thing in question, consider that conversation as pulling the thread that unravels the sweater. Stay focused. A third tactic to avoid is labeling. Once a conversation goes to “all men” or “all women” or “everyone in your family” or “all (name your religion or political party, or all teenagers, etc) it will go downhill quickly. Don’t go there. Keep the conversation specific to you, your partner and this situation. Labeling dehumanizes the other.
4. Be fact based, check your unverified assumptions:
The truth is, you don’t know what another person thinks, feels or intends. If you try to tell them you open the door to a debate that is unwinnable. It can devolve into “Yes, you do.” “No I don’t.” very quickly. The basic fact is that no matter what they felt, thought, or intended, what you are concerned about is what they did. Often, in on-going relationships conflicts arise because we have misheard or misinterpreted what the other person said or did. Check it out before running with your assumptions. The worst that will happen is that misperceptions will be quickly repaired. People operate off of a complex array or motives and intentions. We have mixed feelings. We aren’t always self-aware and at times, not honest. All of that can be addressed at other times. Focus on the behavior of yourself and that of the other person and how to make it work better next time than it did this last time. This conversation isn’t the time to take inventory of their character.
5. Own your on input at the beginning of the conversation:
If you recognize that you have done something to precipitate, or feed into the other person’s behavior that you don’t like, start there. Own your part. Offer what you will do to change the pattern that you don’t like. Share your feelings. Share your perceptions. Conduct your conversation saying “I” and as much as possible avoid the “you” word. You can speak with authority about yourself, and it is best if you let them speak for themselves.
6. Be humble. Realize that you could be wrong, or only know a part of the story:
If you want to have this conversation to be productive, adopt the posture of a good listener. Hear the other person out. Let them speak without interrupting. Hearing them out doesn’t mean going off on tangents. When either of you finishes a statement check that it was heard accurately. If it wasn’t repeat it or reframe it until you both understand the same point. Whether you agree with it or not is not as important as trying to reach a mutual understanding of what exactly is it that is being said. If, during the course of the conversation, other issues emerge, make a note of them and promise to revisit them in another conversation. For now, however, stick with the issue that got you here in the first place. If this conversation is in an on-going relationship (family, co-worker, boss, etc.) it is important that this conversation is conducted in a way that not only maintains, but that builds, goodwill. Make it clear that your goal is to improve the relationship.
7. Being clear:
Here’s an outline for having a win/win conversation.
- Develop a contact for the purpose of the conversation
- State the outcome that you would like to achieve
- Own your part in the development of this issue
- Own your part in any pattern of behavior that sustains this issue
- Suggest what you are willing to do differently going forward
- Offer what you’d like to see from the other party going forward
- Discuss that offer and the other person’s counter offers until you reach an understanding on what each person wants
- Agree on mutually acceptable changes
- Discuss continuing points of disagreement if there are any. (Remember a partial solution in a positive relationship is better than no solution at all. You can revisit the continuing gaps until they are eventually resolved.
- Thank the other person for hearing you out and collaborating with you in crafting a solution that’s better than the current state of affairs.
Recognize that nothing and no one is perfect, not you, not the other person, and maybe not the circumstances under which you have to work. The important goal is to build the relationships that play an important part in your life. The sad fact is that we are all, at times, insensitive, self-absorbed, self-referent, and we often act with incomplete information. As a result we will all anger, hurt, or frustrate those around us, and we should not expect more from them. If we address our issues in a way that is respectful of others, that looks to build and sustain relationships rather than to lash out, and if we look first to alter our own behavior we have a much better chance to get others to alter theirs.
When we are in conversations that are highly charged emotionally, we aren’t likely to be logical, disciplined or focused ourselves. In this paper we have outlined a simple process for having positive conversations about things that bother us with people we care about. We go into situations with baggage from old experiences, looking at the world from our own point of view, with uneven emotional maturity, and with uneven communication skills. Working this process will take practice to master it. It will take patience. There will be false starts and less than productive conversations sometimes. But, if we conduct ourselves with goodwill and integrity along the way, our important relationships are more likely to stay intact until we get it right.