We feel like the other party will get mad. Or we don’t feel like it will help. Or we feel that the other person won’t understand. Or we feel they will say something that we don’t want to deal with.
You get the picture. We either worry that we will be “attacked” or we don’t trust that they will follow the direction of conversation that we want them to. In the final analysis, we don’t feel safe.
Feeling safe in the conversation is the most fundamental position. It allows us to start, and all parties constantly check their safety levels in formulating their statements. When someone becomes defensive, it is because they feel threatened – a.k.a. “not safe”. When someone becomes defensive, the productivity of the conversation falls to zero until you re-establish safety. Pretty simple to understand, but how do you do it?
The task is twofold; 1) to feel safe yourself and 2) create safety for others in the conversation. Why do YOU have to do it? Because they don’t know this stuff!
Making yourself feel safe takes practice and concentration. You have to stay curious, open, engaged, authentic, empathetic, present, and collaborative. You MUST believe that if you do that, the conversation CAN’T go anywhere you don’t want it to, because you AREN’T STEERING IT!
Take curiosity – if you are truly curious about the other party’s point of view, what exactly is it that will make you defensive? The answer is “nothing” because nothing they say is an attack – it is just their point of view, which is what you are seeking. Let’s say I ask someone a very unsafe question like “What do you think of my performance on the Jenson project?” If I am curious, and they say “Frankly I thought you could have done better.” I would naturally ask “How?” If I am not curious, I might have a different response. If I remain curious and ask how I might have done better, they might say “Well, at times you seemed a bit unprofessional when we were meeting with them.” Again, if I fall out of curiosity I might guess at what they mean and try to excuse myself, or I might just tell them they’re wrong, or I might attribute it to my style, or I might tell them that if they knew more about what I do they would understand, or I might tell them “that we will agree to disagree (yuck!)”. If I stay curious, they might tell me “Well, in many meetings you showed up late and several times without a tie!” AHA! Guess what? You just learned what the other person’s definition of professionalism is and how they apply it. YOU STAYED CURIOUS AND LEARNED SOMETHING ABOUT HOW OTHER PEOPLE DEFINE PROFESSIONALISM. It of course will be up to you to determine what you do with the information, but by staying curious is the only way to earn that option.
Making others feel safe should be thought of as making a safe environment for discussion. YOU have to be sensitive to the rhythm of the conversation and observant enough to see when the exchange isn’t going smoothly. The earlier you detect changes in the timbre of the exchange the easier it is to keep things safe. You can tell they are feeling unsafe if they start to withdraw (sarcasm, subject changing, or silence), attack (name-calling, controlling, anger), or begin to act as if you have diminished their dignity. At that moment, you should stop talking about the subject of the conversation, and try to talk about the way the conversation is being conducted (“What you just said makes me think that I may have said something offensive. I didn’t mean to say anything hurtful and if I did, I apologize”). Note – only apologize if it is warranted.
Some things to remember:
Focus on the deeper purpose that you both hope to achieve in the conversation. You hope to understand their side IN ORDER TO accomplish something that will benefit you both. Make sure you BOTH understand what that something and its benefit is. You may see one way solve a problem and the other party may have a totally different solution. You need to assure that you both are committed to solving the problem and agree on what it is. The mutual purpose will help carry you through the discomfort of the conflict over methods IF you explicitly state it. “I want to tell you that, even thought we differ on some of these details, I am delighted to be working with someone that is as passionate about solving problem x as I am.”
Don’t try to accomplish everything in one conversation. The healthiest way to work through things is generally in several small conversations. Difficult topics take some time to work through and the best way to allow the time is to hold several conversations rather than one or two long ones.
Be sensitive to other points of view. A good way to show this is to be tentative. “I may be wrong about this, but I think we should…” is less likely to put someone on the defensive than “Any schoolboy would easily see that we should….” Along those same lines, being humble is a great help. There is no need to hammer someone with your credentials after they have been established. Humility and tentativeness will automatically be part of your demeanor if you are practicing openness.
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