We’ve all had them - those tricky conversations or business meetings where things didn’t go to plan.
Maybe someone got hot under the collar; perhaps there were harsh words exchanged and feelings trampled.
Whenever people bring different opinions to the table, tension will be on the rise. Poorly addressed, that can boil out of control and get a less-than-ideal result.
The outstanding communicators of this world - who can negotiate their way through those situations and bring things to a positive conclusion without killing relationships in the process - have a significant edge.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a magic wand - or maybe a remote control - that gave you the power to bring others around to your way of thinking! Of course, along the way you'd lose the richness of differing opinions that help create great decisions. The discussion might be easier, but you'd lose out in the result.
It occurs to me that, rather than an instrument to control others in a discussion, two other types of gadgets would help.
The magnifying glass
One of my mentors, the incredible Allan Parker, has taught me the value and power of professional curiosity.
Just when things are at their hottest - with hackles rising and tempers boiling - it can be very helpful to pick up an imaginary magnifying glass and, Sherlock Holmes-style, look at the situation though a curious lens. Say to yourself, “Isn’t that interesting!” and consider what might be going on for that person, or the others in the room, to prompt a hostile reaction.
Shifting into a space of curiosity achieves several purposes. It takes you out of your own perspective, which is where you’re at most risk of being overtaken by your emotions. It changes your energy so you're fully present and attentive to the needs of the other person or people.
It can move you from making only “I” statements - which won’t get you far if everyone else in the room is doing the same thing - to asking open ended questions. These can help get the discussion back on track and away from a shout-fest.
Being curious also helps you view others with empathy, rather than criticism. If they're reacting more strongly than usual, maybe something else has happened - not connected with you - to put them under stress.
The shift from “me, me, me” to empathy and curiosity can profoundly affect a conversation or debate. The key is, remember to do it at the time when it matters most.
It would be nice to leave the interaction there; focusing on what's going on for the other person. But that's only half the process.
Another handy imaginary implement is your mirror. This involves the sometimes confronting task of reflecting on your thoughts and behaviour, and what you might have brought to the situation to make emotions rise.
Many of us spend a significant amount of time thinking about events from our past. Some of these memories go back to our childhood. Others are more recent, such as what happened yesterday, last week or a year ago. The person involved in our current interaction might have been involved - or perhaps it was someone completely different who reminds us of the one now in the conversation.
Each time you enter a meeting, pick up the phone or converse with someone face to face, chances are you're wheeling a whole trolley-load of baggage into the encounter, based on a past experience. There's a huge temptation to rely on that baggage as your emotional guide during the conversation. Then you can use what unfolds as evidence of what you already believe; "There he goes again, losing his temper" or "She's taking that sarcastic tone. just like she did in the last meeting"... you get the idea.
But that baggage doesn't have to take over a situation and railroad your emotional response. Make the simple choice to leave your baggage at the door and start the encounter with a clean slate.
That one mental act can shift your attitude and the energy you bring, delivering a profound effect on the outcome. Instead however, many of us take a largely passive role in human interactions. We receive our cues from the other person and let our instant reactions guide what happens next. That's a dangerous recipe.
Holding up the mirror involves taking a closer look at what you're really bringing to the situation. Are you seeing it with a positive mindset? Do you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve (always being flexible because things can change)? Are you taking the time to build rapport with the other person? Are you mindful of simple things like smiling, making good eye contact and reducing distractions so you can be present and truly listen?
If the interaction isn't going well, what contribution are you making? A quick change of approach can make all the difference, for example;
- Perhaps someone (maybe you) is reacting negatively based on their own interpretation of the situation, rather than considering specific facts. Shift that by honing in on the core facts of the issue, not the emotion.
- Is a lot of "I" focused language being used? Change it up by asking a "you"-focused question or introduce collaborative language like "we" and "all of us".
- Resist the temptation to use absolute words (e.g. "always", "forever", "never") and use more tentative, probing language like "how about if we try this.." or "what would it look like if we..." Remember, words have weight - choose yours carefully.
Curiosity and self-reflection are powerful processes to help get better results from your conversations, meetings, and presentations. Even before the first word comes out of your mouth, do the inner work. The conversations you have with others are important; those you have with yourself are absolutely critical.