At some point or other, we all have to have important conversations that have the potential to get ugly and uncomfortable. When in doubt, I say do your best to avoid the conflict…but not the issue.
I’m not talking about avoiding people in the hallways, refusing to answer the phone or saying “yes” to everyone – whether or not you mean it – so that you don’t have to say “no.”
There will always be disagreements and necessary discussions about difficult or unpleasant topics. But these conversations do not need to degenerate into round after round of browbeating to try to get your point across.
Ideally, the goal is to address the issue in a way that gets to the heart of the matter, and reaches a mutually agreeable resolution quickly and efficiently without raising voices or blood pressure. There is one intuitive – and yet commonly overlooked – key that can keep most disagreements in the realm of civil, productive discussion.
The key is consciously listening to understand. This is where most people fall woefully short in both their efforts and their outcomes. They think that they listen, but they don’t do it right. Listening to understand is critical to avoiding real argument for one crucial reason: most people continue to argue a point because they feel like they have not truly been heard or understood.
Let’s look at the difference and key strategies for listening in a way that gets to a peaceful, positive, and productive result.
In disagreements, most people “listen” in order to find an opportunity to interrupt, contradict, or defend. This isn’t sincere listening; it’s more like scanning the horizon for the best time to retaliate.
When both parties do this, it quickly leads to an impasse with one of two outcomes: Either both sides leave feeling frustrated, with no resolution, or one side “wins” by forcing the other side to concede, i.e. lose, which will have a variety of negative repercussions down the line in the form of morale, work quality, and office politics just to name a few.
When you listen to understand, you enter the conversation from the perspective that there’s a missing piece, something you don’t yet know or understand about their position, priorities, interests or concerns.
Invite the other person to share first. A good strategy is to take notes as you listen. This keeps you from interrupting, and allows you to go back later and seek clarification when necessary. It also gives you a chance to reflect and organize your thoughts before you do finally speak, which can streamline the process, avoid clumsy and emotionally-charged knee-jerk responses, and help you prioritize issues to address.
Once the other person has finished sharing their perspective, a great segue can be as simple as, “Thanks for taking the time to explain that to me. I want to make sure I understand the key issues. Can I run through my main takeaways based on what I heard, and you can correct me if I’m off somehow?” Who would say no to such a request?
Once you have the go-ahead, start by paraphrasing your understanding of their key points. You should use simple, reporting language such as, “You said that your budget _____,” or “Did I understand correctly that in your department _____,” or “Your primary concern is that _____, right?” Whatever you do, do not comment on anything yet.
This let’s them know that you are valuing their input enough to take time to ensure that you understood it, and allows them to make sure they got their ideas across effectively. This builds trust and facilitates further discussion.
From there, you can transition into sharing your side of the story, and invite them to take notes and respond later as you did. Keep your language objective, and if you feel like their view on something is incorrect, keep your explanation fact-based, calm and impersonal. There’s a big difference between saying, “There are a few details I don’t think your team is aware of,” and, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
At best, once you have heard each other out, and truly sought to understand each other’s objectives and reasons, you can come to a solution that meets everyone’s needs. But at the very least, if the answer still has to be “no,” there is still potential for positive outcome.
Even though the other person might not be happy with the immediate result, it’s much easier for them to accept the outcome because they understand why, and are emotionally satisfied that they have been respected as a person and a professional.
More importantly, you’re leading by example, and fostering a healthy culture of open communication, transparency, and mutual respect.
That’s the difference between someone who has a leadership position, and someone who is a leader.
Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!