This months letter discusses the importance of
our conversations. It has been said that relationships
are really conversations. The better the conversations,
the better the relationships. If we can improve our
conversations, we can improve our relationships.
Talking Over What Really Matters
Some conversations are so difficult that we do anything
to avoid them. Then, when things have really built up, we finally
have no choice but to confront the issue, the colleague, our
spouse, or the other person with whom we feel so uncomfortable.
We need to talk usually precedes an argument rather than a conversation.
Why are such conversations difficult? Because we are stuck between
knowing what we really feel and knowing what we shouldn't say.
We are distracted by what s going on inside and uncertain
about what is okay to share. There is so much going on between
you and the other person, it is confusing. And, if you didnt
care on some level about your relationship with the other person,
you wouldnt be struggling with this in the first place.
Conversations are difficult because emotions get involved. Emotions
are generated in that part of the brain called the amygdala.
It is a more primitive part of the brain. When stimulated, it
calls the body into fight or flight mode. Humans are genetically
hard-wired to react to emotional triggers by either fighting
or fleeing, two actions which had survival benefits. Those humans
who were able to fight successfully, or to flee danger, survived
and reproduced. Therefore, we are genetically predisposed to
fight or flight.
However, we are now supposed to be socially conditioned to operate
in more "civilized" ways. It is no longer appropriate
to throw stones or draw fists or guns. We are supposed to handle
things with conversations. Are we much different now than our
ancestors? Genetically, no. This explains why we all have impulses
to either blast someone or to avoid them altogether. We are
in fact not hard-wired to sit down and talk it over with someone
when there is a problem.
The Path to Improvement:
Strengths or Weaknesses?
The answer was always the same: weaknesses, not strengths, deserve
the most attention. The most strengths-focused culture is the
United States, but still only a minority of people, 41 percent,
felt that knowing their strengths would help them improve the
most. The least strengths-focused cultures are Japan and China.
Only 24 percent believe that the key to success lies in their
strengths. The majority of people in the world don't think that
the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their
strengths. Interestingly, in every culture the older people
(55 and above) were the least fixated on their weaknesses. Perhaps
they have acquired more self-acceptance and realize the futility
of trying to be what they are not.
A Map of the Territory
What if there was a map to follow when you had to have a difficult
conversation? What if there were steps to consider and directions
to follow? Untangling the complexities of difficult conversations
and breaking them down to basic components would make it easier
to say what needs to be said, and still preserve relationships.
Fifteen years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project
has produced some interesting information about what goes on
during conflict. The book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss
What Matters Most, is written by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton,
Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher (Penguin Books, 2000). Given that
in life we prepare ourselves extensively for almost everything
including our educations and careers, it is surprising that
we haven't studied conversations more. Now there is some data
to help us to have effective conversations, especially when
they involve conflict.
All difficult conversations share a common structure. To see
the structure, we need to understand what is being said, and
also what is not being said. We need to see what both people
are thinking and feeling but not saying to each other.
Understanding the underlying structures of conversations makes
them easier. There are basically three kinds of conversations,
no matter what the subject. In each of these kinds of conversations,
we make predictable errors that distort our thoughts and feelings.
1. The "What Happened?" conversation. There
is usually disagreement about what happened or what should happen.
Stop arguing about whos right: explore each others
stories and try to learn something new. Don't assume they meant
it. Disentangle intent from impact. Abandon blaming anyone and
think in terms of contributions to the problem.
2. The "Feelings" conversation. Every difficult
conversation also asks and answers questions about feelings.
Are they valid? Appropriate? Should I admit them or deny them?
What about the other person's feelings, will I hurt them? What
if they get angry? Often feelings are not addressed directly
and so they interfere with the conversation even more.
3. The "Identity" conversation. This is where
we examine whats at stake: what do I stand to lose or
gain? Am I competent or incompetent, worthy or unlovable? What
impact might this have on my career, marriage, self-esteem,
our relationship? These issues determine the degree to which
we feel off-centered and anxious.
Every conversation involves grappling with these three components.
Engaging successfully requires learning to operate within each
of these three domains. Managing all three simultaneously may
seem daunting, but its easier to do than facing the consequences
of engaging in conversations blindly. Taking the time to consider
each of these factors before having the difficult conversation
is a first step to handling conversations better.
Here are five steps to consider when engaging in difficult conversations:
1. Decipher the underlying structure: what happened, what the
feelings are, how identity is involved
2. Interpret the significance of what is said and what is not
3. Identify the erroneous but deeply ingrained assumptions that
keep you stuck
4. Manage strong emotions, yours and theirs
5. Spot ways your self-image affects the conversation, and ways
the conversation affects your self image
What You Can Change, What You Cant
No matter how much we prepare we can still get tangled up in
conversations where what happened is more complicated than initially
presumed. We will have information the other person is unaware
of and there may be things we cant share. We will face
emotionally charged situations that feel threatening because
they put important aspects of our identity at risk.
In these cases, look at what we can change instead of what we
cant. We can change the way we respond to these challenges.
Typically we enter into difficult conversations prepared to
explain our own view points. What is needed is to hold off until
we explore as much as we can the others persons
perspective. Enter into the conversation with a learning objective.
Dont assume that you understand enough to explain things.
Sometimes a third party can help facilitate difficult conversations.
Talking it through with your personal coach can help you decipher
the underlying components of a difficult conversation. Your
coach can help you examine your assumptions, your emotions and
your personal identity. You can have difficult conversations
in a way that improves relationships instead of risking hurt
One of the best books that I have discovered on this subject
is Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in
Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott. I have it along
with other good books listed on my web site
Click on Partners and Amazon and you will find Susan Scotts
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For the last twenty-two
years Jerry Pinney has been president of his own consulting firm.
Currently he focuses his efforts on providing executive and personal
coaching to persons who are interested in improving their quality
of life and consulting to small and mid-sized companies and nonprofits.
He is a facilitator for peer advisory groups with The Alternative
Board and is a Certified One Page Planning Consultant. Jerry has
over three decades of experience in the food industry, and possesses
a unique perspective of customer service, marketing and strategic
planning. In addition to overall general management qualifications,
Jerry has proven expertise in operational planning and business
development. His food industry career started at Jewel Food Stores
followed by a long career with IGA, with their retailers, wholesalers
and ten years as Vice President of Marketing. In addition Jerry
has served as Vice President of Membership for the National Grocers
Association, Sr. Vice President of Procurement for Shurfine International
and Executive Manager of The Zenon Hansen Foundation.
Jerry has also served on a number of nonprofit
boards including: President of the Volunteer Center of Northwest
Suburban Chicago. He is currently a Project Manager for the Executive
Service Corps of Chicago. Jerrys ESC assignments have included
coaching for several Executive Directors, and consulting on various
Board Development projects and on a number of strategic planning
Pinney & Associates
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