Monday, November 16, 2009

How to have more productive conversations.

Post 369 - The key to having more productive conversations is not what the other person does as much as what you do differently yourself. You're the one who has to take the initiative to improve. By acting differently, you'll begin to change the patterns of communication with the other party and provoke different responses in them as well. Over time, you'll both end up changing how you deal with each other, in the process, develop a more resilient relationship.

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their excellent book, Difficult Conversations; How to discuss what matters most, point out that there are often three conversations going on at the same time. It helps to understand what they are so you can then decouple and manage them.

First, there’s the What Happened Conversation.
Here, we often get stuck because we think our story is "right" while their story is "wrong." In practice, there's almost always some reasonable basis for both sides' stories. So it makes more sense to explore each other's stories instead of attacking theirs and defending ours.

We also often demonize the intentions of others while sanitizing our own. If they did something that hurt me, it was because they meant to. If I did something that hurt them, it was an unintended consequence because I had good intentions, etc. So, try to separate intent and impact.

With a few exceptions, it's rarely helpful to blame each other for whatever went wrong. It's more helpful to explore what each party contributed to the issue at hand.

Secondly, there’s the Feeling Conversation.
Our feelings often tend to leak into our conversations in unproductive ways. So to lessen the negative effects this produces, make an effort to have both parties identify, acknowledge and discuss how they feel.

Thirdly, there’s the Identity Conversation.
Sometimes, conversations are difficult because they threaten some aspect of our identity. We see ourselves as truthful, generous and fair, so anything that challenges that picture upsets us. Here, we need to revisit what's at stake for us and broaden our picture of who we are.

The real challenge in all this is to create a conversation where both parties can share, understand, learn and move on. Here are some helpful reminders:

- Start by describing what happened in a way that includes the other person, such as, “I’ve noticed we have a recurring argument where I see things this way and you see them that way. I’d like to talk about why that happens.” Use this to invite them to have a conversation with you.

- Pay attention to the old maxim: Listen first to understand, then to be understood. Look to find the pieces of the puzzle that you don’t have.

- Speak for yourself. Don’t speak for the other party or assume you know what they’re thinking or feeling.

- Take the lead in problem solving. Name troublesome dynamics in the conversation as they happen. Suggest better ways of talking to each other. Move to problem solving together after you’ve learned about their story. Remember it said together - don’t impose this on the other person.

More tomorrow.

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