Sunday, July 13, 2008

How do I handle this face-to-face?

Of all the questions I am asked on the subject, the most frequent by far deal with emotion. Interestingly, they fall into two distinct categories:

  1. How do I keep from sounding emotionless (robotic, rehearsed)?

  2. What do I do if I find myself (or the other person) getting upset with the way things are going?)?

To answer the first, the simple approach is to only rehearse the conversation model. Understand the components of your story, think through your purpose in having the conversation, get into your appropriate engagement stance and start the conversation. Note that I am not recommending that you rehearse the words you are going to say, or your inflection, or your facial expressions. In fact, I advise against it. If you have a well-rehearsed prepared statement, you practically have to be a professional actor to make it sound authentic. If you don't sound authentic, it is unlikely that you will connect with your collaborator. And connecting with them and learning their side of the story is critical.

The second question comes up when we are either trying to control the outcome of the conversation OR have failed to maintain enough safety for the other party to stay open and communicative. When we find ourselves getting emotional, recognize it immediately and focus on hearing their side instead of expressing your own. Peter Senge (director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management) actually repeats the words "I am trying to learn" in his head like a mantra in order to stay focused. When I find myself being carried away with emotion in a conversation, I try to remember all the times I have thought I was right, but changed my mind when I was presented with one critical piece of information I hadn't considered. The fact that it is quite possible that I am wrong allows to me to refocus to hear that data that will clarify things for me.

As far as maintaining safety goes, it is critical to step out of the content of the conversation and step into the process - to clarify that the important thing about the conversation is that it leads to a greater understanding of the topic. It is critical to re-establish Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose.

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