Can You Talk About What Matters Most? Four Skills for Creating REAL Conversations

When I ask folks why they refuse to talk about what matters most, the most frequently offered response is, “I don’t know how to do it.” Whatever your response may be, the consequences are always the same, poor results. Such thinking usually results in what I call counterfeit conversation or “fake talk.” Fake talk occurs when you are in a prickly situation where you just don’t know how to talk about what really matters, so you don’t bring up the tough issue. Or perhaps you have been a party to a conversation where everyone nods in agreement about what to do in a certain situation, but then the expected outcome never materializes. Then there are those times that you really try to share what’s on your mind, but you open your mouth and just make a mess in attempting to talk about the issue. Or worst yet, your manager tells you to just keep your mouth shut.

We’ve been a party to these types of situations, and then ended up surprised when performance stays the same, accountability or responsibility doesn’t improve, morale remains low, personal engagement is nonexistent, customers aren’t satisfied, and culture change issues are never addressed. Whatever the situation, we usually don’t learn until later, after not getting the expected results, that the conversation went awry.

Sometimes fake talk occurs because we expect people to read our minds. That is why your listeners just keep doing what they have always done. Or perhaps you beat around the bush or are unintentionally vague, so your people misinterpret what you have said, then they don’t really have a clue about your expectations or what results they should be accountable for. When this happens, we find it easier to blame others rather than explore how we contributed to the results that we received. Someone once said that each of us are perfectly positioned to receive the very results that we have created by what we do or don’t do. Agreed!

Why Not Create REAL Conversation?

REAL conversation is communication which is fostered by engaging in dialogue. Dialogue is conversation where individuals come to shared understanding by learning from the perspectives, ideas, and experiences of each other. The meaning in the conversation is created by everyone who respectfully and authentically shares their thinking which may not be agreed upon, but is shared and understood nonetheless.

Creating REAL Conversation requires everyone to use four distinct skills or conversational behaviors: Recognizing and suspending, Expressing, Asking, and Listening and Attending. The acronym REAL forms a simple reminder of the skills that we ought to use in talking about potentially difficult topics. Let’s take a moment to further define each of these specific behaviors.

Recognizing and Suspending is the ability to notice the dynamics that are present in any conversation as well as the ability to manage those dynamics to achieve a more productive result. Because your thoughts, judgments, interpretations or paradigms drive your behavior, the key to improving your results is dependent upon your ability to notice your thinking and set it aside or suspend it to consider the perspective of others. Recognition and suspension, then, requires that you be both a participant and an observer in the conversation. You have to discuss the topic, and you have to notice the effectiveness of the conversation as it proceeds. The challenge for many communicators is to notice how their behavior negatively impacts the course of the conversation. Upon noticing the impact that they are having, they must be able to pursue a number of different behaviors that will improve the course or flow of the interaction.

Expressing deals with how you share your message. Ironically when you perceive that your message is falling on deaf ears or is earning a significant amount of push-back, you will usually intensify your delivery or become more passionate to get your point across. Unfortunately such behavior usually serves to create more resistance than acceptance. The challenge in delivering any important message is to do so without creating resistance or defensiveness in your listener. You want your message to create more contribution and collaboration rather than confrontation and coercion from others.

Asking is simply seeking understanding by asking questions. Asking questions is the easiest way to create respect and connection with others. Asking the “right” questions, those that provide you with the answers that you seek, will create an understanding of their thinking process and will also provide insight into what is most important to them and why. Asking questions also allows you to clarify your understanding, initiate progressive thinking, and reduce emotional reaction.

Listening and Attending requires that you not only listen to the words of a message, but also attend to how it is said. While we listen with our ears, we attend with our eyes, body, intuition, and heart. Attending also requires that we learn to listen and understand what is not being said. Consequently, we listen and attend with all of us as we learn the discipline to be totally present during any conversation. Listening and attending is focused, non-judgmental, specific, and empathetic. We learn to practice a variety of listening skills not only with others but also with yourself as you increase your self-awareness of how you think and what drives your behavior in dealing with others.

Why These Behaviors?

REAL Conversations achieve results, increase respect, and build relationships. Parties to these types of conversations come away feeling understood, valued and respected. The behavior and relationship of both parties are changed for the positive, and things get done. Such conversations are specific, direct, open, insightful, solution-oriented, respectful, authentic, encouraging and complimentary. To assess the current quality of your conversations try asking yourself these three questions:

“How do my conversations impact the quality of my results?”

“How would you describe the quality of your relationships?”

“Is respect the hallmark of how I treat others and how they treat me?”

If you answered in the negative to any of these questions, then you are probably engaging in some form of fake talk. Some of the greatest opportunities for holding REAL Conversations is when no one agrees with you, when you are constantly angry at the same person, when your expectations are repeatedly violated, or you don’t get what you want. The quality of all that you receive reflects the quality of your conversations. When you engage in fake talk, you put all that you really want in jeopardy. 

To achieve what you want to must learn to recognize what is happening in the moment, suspend your thinking, ask questions to understand before you express your views, listen and attend to what is being said, and then express your perspective. Hold REAL conversations and learn to talk about what matters most. If you can express what you truly think, feel, or want, then you can give people what they need to help them succeed. Holding such conversations will take courage, but the outcome will be well worth the effort.           

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