Crucial Conversations – and the free flow of meaning

Three clients indicated that I had struck a raw nerve with last month’s post on crucial conversations and confrontations. Two asked me to conduct coaching discussions. We used examples emanating from their workplaces.

While holding a crucial conversation can be sophisticated, mastering even a few principles can lead to immediate results.  Understanding these principles opens new opportunities and removes the inclination to rather be silent than risking a conversation which could turn out to become very uncomfortable and which might even derail.

Each person develops a pool of meaning. Kerry Patterson and his co-authors use this beautiful metaphor. They observe that people together develop and fill pools of shared meaning. “Dialogue” is the free flow of meaning between two or more people. Dialogue is not debate, or argument or trying to win. Nor is it the silent treatment or running away.

Crucial conversations do not always happen suddenly.  We often have the opportunity of preparing mentally for them and if we follow old patterns, our preparations might be faulty.

Research showed that when matters go crucial, a negative outcome develops in record time. We see or hear something. We tell ourselves a story about what happened. This leads to an emotion, often one of dissatisfaction or anger – which leads to over-the-top action, often verbal or written.

If time is on your side, step back and think. What do you want for yourself, for the other person, for the organisation?  Focus on what you really want. Refuse the wrong or easy choice. Refuse the “Sucker’s Choice”.

Take note that a person’s action (which prompted our emotional reaction) could be rooted in six areas of possibility. To name a few: It could lie in the person’s motivation or mindset or in that person’s ability. It could lie in the peer pressure exercised by that person’s group. It could lie in things, in the organisation, for instance, in a breakdown of equipment, or in the reward system which rewards different actions.

The point is six different areas could influence a person to react, offering your six and more reasons for being wrong. Sobering is it not? Stand back and take an in-depth look. Don’t act on your first reading of the situation especially if you are upset.

In thinking things through, commit your thoughts in writing – not in an email but in a personal note. This writing exercise is a very important action, as it will assist you in sticking to the facts. What have you actually heard or what did you see?  Are you casting the other as the villain  and yourself as the victim? Is it possible that you played a role in creating the problem? In reviewing matters, it helps to think of the other as a person along these lines: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?” This question has the effect of driving emotion out of the door.

In confronting the other person, know that a request for a conversation in itself could create tension. The other may dread meeting with you.

In starting a conversation, make it safe.  State that you value the other as a team member, as a co-worker. Develop a mutual purpose, for instance, a successful result to a project. Then turn to the problem which is the point of the discussion. Use tentative phrases. Apologise, if necessary, for first reactions. Do no use judgemental phrases. Stick to the facts.

During the conversation, actively explore the other’s point of view. Listen and reflect the other’s thinking – without necessarily agreeing. Paraphrase. Agree where you can.

Come to a conclusion which is fair, which summarises the situation and which builds relations.

So often in conversations, this is where the dialogue stops. This is a big mistake. Wind things up neatly. What actions need to follow? Agree on what needs to be done, by whom and by when. Be precise and suggest that both make notes. Strive for clarity. Send out a summary by email.

Lastly, follow up by an agreed date. Check whether the matter has been resolved. If you have handled the situation well, the problem is solved, relations have improved and because of neat winding-up actions, the matter might well have turned into an important learning experience benefitting all concerned.

Following a disagreement or a disappointment a crucial conversation or confrontation has three phases: Before, during and after. We often only deal with the middle phase. By thoughtfully adding the other two, such conversations can be turned into positive outcomes.

PS For examples of problems that require crucial conversations or confrontations, visit the newsletter of the authors who, in turn each week, provide possible solutions to the problems which readers submit to them…


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