When people first hear the term “crucial conversation,” many people conjure up images of presidents, emperors, and prime ministers seated around a massive table while they debate the future of the world. Although it’s true that such discussions have a wide-sweeping and lasting impact, they’re not the kind we have in mind. They’re the day-to-day conversations that affect your life.
Think of a conversation you’ve been putting off. Got it? Great. Then let’s go.
Working on Yourself: How To Prepare for the Conversation
Before going into the conversation, ask yourself some questions:
- What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? What would be an ideal outcome? Watch for hidden purposes. You may think you have honorable goals, like educating an employee or increasing connection with your teen, only to notice that your language is excessively critical or condescending. You think you want to support, but you end up punishing. Some purposes are more useful than others. Work on yourself so that you enter the conversation with a supportive purpose.
- What assumptions are you making about this person’s intentions? You may feel intimidated, belittled, ignored, disrespected, or marginalized, but be cautious about assuming that this was the speaker’s intention. Impact does not necessarily equal intent.
- What are “buttons” of yours being pushed? Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Take a look at your “backstory,” as they say in the movies. What personal history is being triggered? You may still have the conversation, but you’ll go into it knowing that some of the heightened emotional states have to do with you.
- How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it? If you think this is going to be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.
- Who is the opponent? What might he be thinking about this situation? Is he aware of the problem? If so, how do you think he perceives it? What are his needs and fears? What solution do you think he would suggest? Begin to reframe the opponent as a partner.
- What are your needs and fears? Are there any common concerns? Could there be?
- How have you contributed to the problem? How has the other person?
Step #1: Inquiry
Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. Pretend you don’t know anything (you really don’t), and try to learn as much as possible about your opponent/partner and his point of view. Pretend you’re entertaining a visitor from another planet, and find out how things look on that planet, how certain events affect the other person, and what the values and priorities are there.
Step #2: Acknowledgment
Acknowledgment means showing that you’ve heard and understood. Try to understand the other person so well you can make his argument for him. Then do it. Explain back to him what you think he’s really going for. Guess at his hopes and honor his position. He will not change unless he sees that you see where he stands. Then he might. No guarantees.
Step #3: Advocacy
When you sense your opponent/partner has expressed all his energy on the topic, it’s your turn. What can you see from your perspective that he’s missed? Help clarify your position without minimizing his. For example: “From what you’ve told me, I can see how you came to the conclusion that I’m not a team player. And I think I am. When I introduce problems with a project, I’m thinking about its long-term success. I don’t mean to be a critic, though perhaps I sound like one. Maybe we can talk about how to address these issues so that my intention is clear.”
Step #4: Problem-Solving
Now you’re ready to begin building solutions. Brainstorming and continued inquiry are useful here. Ask your opponent/partner what he thinks might work. Whatever he says, find something you like and build on it. If the conversation becomes adversarial, go back to an inquiry. Asking for the other’s point of view usually creates safety and encourages him to engage. If you’ve been successful in centering, adjusting your attitude, and engaging with an inquiry and useful purpose, building sustainable solutions will be easy.