#41 Seven Steps for Open Conversations
The foundation of a strong, healthy relationship with other humans is being able to have open, honest conversations. BUT THEY'RE HARD!
After the feedback from the last email, I figured I'd put together my thoughts on how I like to have open conversations, maybe some of this stuff rings true for you to?
The foundation of a strong, healthy relationship with other humans is being able to have open, honest conversations. Yeah, I get that it can be really intimidating to either start an open conversation, or be the recipient of someone starting an open conversation. It's awkward, your pulse races, you fidget, you feel uncomfortable, maybe you get the flop sweats, maybe it give you gas.
Whatever it does to you, not having an open conversation is so much worse. Hedging your bets, or hiding your hand, or putting on a front is at best dishonest and at worst, insulting for your conversational partner.
This is even more pronounced when the topic of conversation is sensitive or challenging (once, I had to talk to a colleague about their body odour, that was really tough, but turns out, there was an reason for it and we overcame it), but the stakes are higher then need for openness and honesty is that much greater.
It's hard and scary to be open and honest with those close to you, let alone colleagues, so here follows are seven steps for navigating the valley of difficult conversations and emerging on the sunlit uplands of enlightenment and peace:
Choose the right time and place: Probably the most important thing is to choose a time and place that is convenient and private for both parties. Avoid having the conversation when either person is rushed or under time pressure, or in a noisy or public place where it may be difficult to concentrate. Also, consider having the conversation when everyone is in a good mood (or, at least not a bad mood). Yeah, it could be a downer, but you're likely to get much better outcomes than having an open conversation with someone who is already upset, pissed off, bored or angry.
Set an intention: Before you start the conversation, take a moment to set an intention for what you want to achieve. Is your goal to resolve a conflict, seek feedback, or simply to better understand someone's perspective? Having a clear intention can help you stay focused and on track. Think about what YOUR intention is and what you hope to get from the conversation, but also what the other person will get it of it, or how they'll feel. If those two things are at odds, then maybe the topic of conversation needs addressing? Or maybe that's the point.
Listen actively: I'm sure you know, but active listening is an important skill to practice, but it's especially important in an open conversation. This means paying attention to what the other person is saying, and showing that you are listening through nonverbal cues like eye contact and nodding (if you're able) or, reframing and checking you understand what's been said, eg. "Can I check my understanding of what you just said? ..."). Avoid interrupting or jumping to conclusions (it can be exhausting, jumping to conclusions!), and try to really understand the other person's perspective.
Be open and authentic: It's important to be open and authentic in an open conversation, even if it means sharing your own vulnerabilities or weaknesses. This can help to create a sense of trust and understanding between the parties. (This is probably the crux of the matter). Speak freely and from your heart, but don't be an ass.
Use "I" statements: Instead of blaming or accusing the other person, try using "I" statements to express your own feelings and needs. For example, instead of saying "You always forget to clean up after yourself," you could say "I feel frustrated when the kitchen is a mess because I value cleanliness and respect shared spaces.". This feels super awkward to say, especially when you just want to scream "LEE, for heavens sake dude, can you PLEASE stop cooking your mac and cheese in the coffee maker!". But, "I feel frustrated and upset when I have to clean old cheese out of the coffee machine before I get my hit of caff". Both explains the consequences of the persons actions AND how it makes you (and others) feel.
Stay curious: Try to stay curious about the other person's perspective, even if you disagree with it. If you start to feel angry or frustrated, ask another question about the situation (not a salty one), or reframe a previous question that you didn't get a satisfactory answer for. You can even say "I'm really struggling to understand your point here, can you help me get on the same page as you?". This can help to foster understanding and respect, even if you don't come to a resolution. Often, disagreements come down to different understandings of the same word, or the same context and digging in like this and asking more questions will, 9 out of 10 times, lead to a lightbulb moment for you both.
Take a break if necessary: If the conversation becomes too intense or emotional, it may be helpful to take a break and come back to it later. This can give both parties time to regroup and approach the conversation with a clearer mind. Don't just walk off though. Be explicit about needing a break - "I feel frustrated and/or upset and because of this I'm struggling to make sense of the conversation. I suggest we break and come back later." is a perfectly acceptable way of calling a time-out. "You're an idiot and you're making me mad so I need a break", as satisfying as it might be to say, is not acceptable!
Having an open conversation can be hard, intimidating, and downright uncomfortable, but it is an important skill to practice for building strong and healthy relationships at work and at home. By following these seven steps and staying open, authentic, and curious, you can navigate difficult conversations more effectively and with greater confidence.
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