When I plan an event, I go to considerable effort to make sure I set the proper tone in terms of flow of events, the agenda, the menu, my dress, my energy level, what I will say, etc. The more important the event, the more time and effort that will go into planning that event.
In contrast, when I plan an important conversation with a loved one or colleague, I tend to plan the content but typically allow the rest to emerge spontaneously. To the degree that the conversation is likely to be viewed positively by both parties, going-with-the-flow may be sufficient though not ideal. To the degree the conversation may be difficult or become confrontational, then this strategy is likely to be a disaster. Since the repercussions of a failed relationship are pretty high, it makes sense to put as much effort into planning a critical conversation as a dinner party, right?
In the past, I would spend all my planning time honing my argument so that I have a counter for every possible complaint or accusation. That approach assumes the outcome of the conversation has a winner and a loser, and I worked hard to prepare because I never want to be the loser. However, in the end, the win/lose mindset creates only losers because I’m putting ego ahead of the relationship.
Instead, I want to create a win/win by making the relationship the priority. Despite my best intentions to do so, it’s not an easy task and should not be left to chance. I wouldn’t leave the outcome of an important reception to chance, why should an important conversation be any different?
Here’s my checklist for preparing for a difficult conversation:
- Identify the larger goal – Instead of proving someone wrong, my larger goal may be to repair the relationship, build the relationship, and/or find a solution to a sensitive issue.
- Identify my message – Pick one or two points that I want to get across. For example, I may want her to understand that I care about her and her needs but also to communicate the limitations of the situation.
- Identify my goal for that person – If a conversation is difficult for me then it’s likely to be difficult for my partner as well. If I can help her feel heard and understood, we are much more likely to be able to move forward constructively than if my main goal is to win or ‘be right.’
- Enter the conversation with positive, not negative emotions – If I enter the conversation feeling fearful or defensive, I won’t be a good listener. Instead, I try to clear my emotional stage to be loving, affirming, and compassionate. I imagine that other person’s needs, wants and desires. They want to be heard, understood and appreciated. Just like me.
- Dealing with my hot buttons – I know that I have a tendency to get defensive or shut down if I feel someone is being critical. Others may get smug, superior, or demanding. Therefore, staying in compassionate listener-mode means staying totally present with the speaker’s reality, especially when I have a tendency to get defensive. Being a reflective listener (“So when I said X, you felt I was judging you and that really hurt your feelings…”) does wonders for allowing that person to feel heard without jumping to my usual defensive or aggressive mode (“Well when you did Y, it really shows that you don’t care about me at all!”).
In other words, the success of the conversation depends on whether I take emotional leadership of the conversation to help solve the problem, or just become the lowest common emotional denominator and contribute to the problem. I may not always be successful but at least I have the best chance for success when I do my homework and set the right stage for this critical event.