Sunday, October 16, 2011

Managing Attitudes in Difficult Conversations

When we hold work conversations, there may think we there is just one subject and therefore just one topic to manage, but there are always two conversations in progress – the one about the topic, and the one about the relationships and attitudes held by the people in the conversation.

When I watch someone walk away from a conversation I judge how they appear and whether they appear upset or happy, I often ask them why (because I am a student of such things). Nearly always, the person will tell me the about:

• The way they had imagined the conversation going and how different it was from the way it ACTUALLY went, or

• The other person’s behavior, or

• The other person’s manner of speaking and attitude, or

• The other person’s listening skills (or lack thereof), or

… you get the idea.

We walk into the conversation and if we prepare at all, we prepare to talk about the topic. We evaluate what we know about it, we may research a little if we need to more before we can have a meaningful conversation, and then we consider what questions the other person may be able to answer in order to help shed some light on the topic for us. Seldom, if ever, do we prepare ourselves regarding the person to whom we are going to talk. This week, I want to talk about how to prepare for a conversation in which we anticipate some kind of controversy.

First, let me state that having this kind of conversation is REALLY good for us – we can’t master conflict by avoiding them, and mastering these kinds of conversations moves us from the 85% of leaders that DON’T know how to the 15% of leaders that DO. I suggest that the two most important activities that you seek to master are:

• Asking questions so that you understand just what your counterpart’s perspective, and

• Listening

Other things like understanding their non-verbal cues or learning logical fallacies or cognitive biases are all helpful, but listening and asking questions are foundational.

Some things you will need to ask questions about:

• Why is the topic important to you?

• What impact does the current situation have on you?

• What consequences do those impacts carry? That is, if things don’t change what is the likely outcome?

These are simple questions, and the answers are critical in being able to decide the weight and priority of the issue at hand. We don’t want to spend too little time on important issues nor too much time on trivial ones. This also helps “anchor” us to a given priority for an issue, so that later on we can refer back to the priority we first set and not leave to early nor hang on too long.

Also, it takes some skill to ask them effectively. We have lots of bad habits surrounding asking questions, mostly around the subject of listening.

• We begin to compare their answer with how WE feel about the topic, or

• We stop listening shortly after we ask the question and begin thinking about what we want to say next, or

• We start to judge or evaluate the “rightness” of their position

These habits just take time and effort to break. I started by trying to silence the “voice in my head” that was all that talking that makes it difficult to concentrate on the other person’s words, and found that very difficult. I found that if I guided that voice to be curious about what the other person was saying, it was far easier. That way, it was easy for me to keep my focus on learning the other party’s perspective as well as they do and not be distracted. So I learned to keep the voice curious and asking questions like ”that’s a very different way of looking at this. I wonder how they intend to handle keeping the customer in the loop?” Thinking like that INSTEAD of silently comparing my idea to theirs keeps me very focused on their perspective.

My students sometimes express concerns that following along with their counterpart’s idea, that is considering it so fully while not mentioning their own, makes them feel as if they are falsely leading their counterpart to expect that at the end of the conversation, the idea will just be accepted because no opposing idea has been offered. The best way I have found to deal with that is to be explicit about stating that you have your own ideas on the subject, but would be interested to hear theirs. That way, it’s CLEAR that you each have perspectives, and that you are trying to understand theirs. MANY times, I have found that the other person’s ideas are very good just as they are, and find that I buy in to them completely. So, if the goal is that we end up with an idea that we both buy into, it does no harm to listen to their perspective first.

Even if our ideas are very different, the other person will find you to be a good communicator because you listened to them (people that DON'T listen are the ones most frequently labeled poor communicators). Also, you will find that IF you listen carefully to others and are genuinely interested and curious, your counterpart will usually extend that same courtesy to you. I you find this NOT to be true, write me. I can help you with that.

As far as what questions to ask, there is a model used forformulating questions depending on what it is you want to know about the topic. Here is a link to an article I wrote 3 years ago for that information.

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