Can You Talk About What Matters Most?

Jim has been a member of a product development team for the last year. He got along well with everyone except for the team’s leader, Mary. For some reason, Mary has the tendency to cut Jim off during their team discussions, finish his sentences, and play devil’s advocate. In fact, Mary has frequently said, “No offense Jim, but I just have to play devil’s advocate here!” Then off Mary goes berating Jim’s idea with little, if any, evidence to support her opposing view. Unfortunately, no one has come to Jim’s aid probably because no one wants to end up on Mary’s bad side and be on the receiving end of her rude behavior. Finally, Jim has mustered the courage to talk to Mary about her actions.

We have all been in a situation like Jim’s where we have the opportunity to speak up and improve an irritating situation or remain silent and continue to endure the person’s obnoxious behavior.

In the hope of sharing what may be on your mind in a way that improves whatever situation you may be in, here are few tips to help you prepare the conversation and decrease the stress that often accompanies the decision to talk about something that matters to you.

Prepare or Beware. If you will take a few moments to think about the conversation you need to hold, you will greatly improve the likelihood that the conversation will go well. The reason people go to fight or flight is because they are not prepared. You need to answer the following questions that will help you assess the conversation more thoroughly.

·       “What do you want the outcome of the conversation to be?”

·       “What do I know about this person and how they might respond to this topic?”

·       “What is the current status of our relationship?”

·       “What has been happening or what are the facts of the current situation?”

·       “What is my reasonable interpretation of the facts in this situation?”

·       “What would I like to have happen going forward?”

Answering these questions will give you clarity about the situation and help you begin to prepare what you might say to achieve the desired results. Answering these questions will increase your awareness of how the conversation might go and what you might do to improve the outcome.

Clarify Your Mindset. We come from a certain space at a certain time. For example, if you are angry with the person to whom you need to speak, that will be the underlying energy that will pervade everything you say and do. To dissipate any ill feelings that you may have toward an individual, you might finish this sentence a number of times: “I am angry with (person’s name) because….”

Once you have answered the question a number of times, you will have a more objective view of your mindset in the moment, and you can assess your thinking for accuracy. Remember, it only takes one piece of data that runs contrary to what you are thinking and you must admit that your assumptions may be in doubt.

Create an Attention Check. An attention check is created by finishing the sentence, “I’d like to talk about…. Can we do that?” You are essentially stating your intention for the conversation and then asking the person’s permission to engage in a conversation on a particular topic. In the example above, Jim could say, “I’d like to talk about our working relationship. Can we do that for a minute?” Such a statement will totally focus Mary’s attention on the topic at hand.

Identify the Facts. After using an Attention Check to start the conversation, you will want to share the facts of the situation. Using phrases like, “I noticed…,” “I observed…,” or “I heard…,” will keep you grounded in factual statements. So in the situation above, if you were Jim, you might say, “I noticed in yesterday’s meeting that you finished my statements on three different occasions and ended the meeting in announcing that you wanted to play devil’s advocate.”

If you go to identify the facts in a given situation and you can’t identify any, then you may be making assumptions without the facts that form the basis for your thinking.

Prepare a Respectful Interpretation. Given the facts in your current situation, ask yourself this question, “What would be a logical explanation for what this person is saying or doing?” After generating a few responses to your question, take one of your responses and create a respectful interpretation by beginning with, “I wonder if….” For example, Jim might say, “I wonder if my ideas lack some credibility from your perspective.”

After sharing a respectful interpretation, you will want to end in a question to invite the person to respond to the interpretation that you shared. Such a question to confirm your thinking might be, “Is that true?”  

Ask Questions. If you take a moment to identify what you want to know, you will know what questions you need to ask. For example, as I just mentioned above you might want the person to confirm or disconfirm your previous interpretation. Then you will want to ask any number of questions that will help you clearly understand the other person’s perspective.

Considering the previous interpretation, Jim might want to ask Mary why she feels she always has to play an adversarial role when considering his ideas, why she cuts him off, or why she feels inclined to finish his sentences. There is a mindset that is driving Mary’s behavior. If Jim never asks questions to try to understand Mary’s thinking, neither he nor Mary may ever come to understand what assumptions are behind her  behavior.

Summarize to Connect. After you have asked the questions that will help you understand the other person, take a moment to summarize what you have heard, where you agree and disagree, or what is important to both yourself and the other person. When you finish summarizing, ask the person if you have summarized accurately. Don’t worry if you miss something in your summary. The other person will usually add further clarity about what you may have misunderstood.

Build and Finalize a Plan. The reason that you have decided to hold this potentially difficult conversation is because you want something to change or improve. It is critical that you both agree on a plan of action going forward and that you are both committed to that plan. In Jim’s case, he may want Mary to let him finish his thoughts, provide data that may call his ideas or proposals into question, or be spoken to in a respectful tone during problem-solving conversations that take place with the team. Being willing to explore and create a solution together is the key to achieving more positive results.

It is important that you take a moment and think through these tips for holding any difficult conversation. If you would like to explore these ideas in greater depth, they are covered in my book, Overcoming Fake Talk.

Hopefully you can use the eight tips above to improve the effectiveness of your most challenging conversations. Like anything else that you desire to improve, you need to dive in, make the attempt, and learn from your mistakes. If you will make the effort, I know that the quality of your conversations will greatly improve.