Monday, July 11, 2011

What to Say in Difficult Conversations

As we develop our skills as a communicator, it is common to focus on what we will say as if “saying” was the most important part of communicating. As if crafting a message as if it were a single entity and delivering it was the act that causes the listener to understand it. The listener, however, has much to consider BESIDES the message before they can truly understand what we mean in an even moderately complex message.

We have all experienced being told something about ourselves that we didn’t want to hear – that we didn’t accept at the first mention. “Your work quality doesn’t justify a raise at this time”; “You aren’t someone with whom people like to spend time”; “You are not carrying your share as a parent”. Is there ANY WAY that someone could craft that message in a way that you would accept it at face value and say “I suppose that is true.”?

The idea here is that when you have a conversation about a topic in which the other person is going to be faced with the prospect of looking at something from a new (and potentially uncomfortable) perspective, you need to be prepared to deal with MORE than just the message. They will be looking for you to not only to justify your words with logic, but also to lead them through the difficulty of hearing the words. So we have two messages; a content message and a relationship message.

Regular readers of this newsletter (and I am SO grateful for the many of you that there are) will recall that I have described a model called the SPIRAL model that defines the four basic elements of a content message (claims, questions, evidence, and inference). I will recap that model in the next newsletter. This week, I want to talk about the relationship message.

The relationship message is built on three principles:

1) Use THE SCORE to reduce defensiveness in your counterpart(s)

2) Pay careful attention to the LISTENER, whether it is you that is listening at the moment or your counterpart. The speaker usually understands their own message; it is the LISTENER that needs extra help especially if the content is complex or “difficult to hear”.

3) It is important to demonstrate attention-to-detail regarding the relationship message AND to guide your counterpart(s) in showing the same attention to detail as you (the skilled communicator).

I have developed a matrix that describes 10 common activities that a skilled communicator will use in a conversation. Depending on the difficulty level of the conversation, you may use just one, or you may use all 10. The matrix shows an activity (for instance, Clarification) and describes the essential elements you need to convey when demonstrating clarification. The third column shows the words I might use in clarifying something (that is, demonstrating clarification. The fourth column shows words I would use to guide a counterpart into giving clarification. Many times, people don’t communicate as effectively as they could because they don’t know how or they don’t know that it is alright. So the fourth column contains what I might say if I were guiding them to do that. The matrix is here.

I stress that the third and fourth columns contain words that I would use, and they may not be the words that YOU would use. IT IS CRITICAL that you convey SINCERE emotions using words that come naturally to you. If you try to read from a script, you will sound like it. Determine the words you would use and use those – they are the BEST ones for you.

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