Communication skills are a core part of an executive’s arsenal, but even leaders who excel in this regard can sometimes fall victim to common conversational mistakes – and this is especially the case when tensions are high and the topic of discussion is contentious.
In a slideshow for the Harvard Business Review based on the book “Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them” by Holly Weeks, Sarah Green outlined nine conversational traps into which many of us fall. We explored the first four of these in part one:
1) Succumbing to a combat mentality, which often escalates a tense situation into outright hostility.
2) Oversimplifying a problem, making it seem easier to deal with than it really is but leaving some important aspects unaddressed.
3) Disrespecting oneself and one another, which can lead to the tone of a conversation quickly going south.
4) Becoming overly aggressive or passive, resulting in the true agenda being buried.
The last five are as follows:
5) Getting drawn into your counterpart’s defensive tactics
Although resisting the pull of a combat mentality is admirable, this is only half the battle. There’s no telling whether the other participants in the discussion will take the high road – and if they don’t, it’s all too easy to get caught up in what Green terms “thwarting ploys,” which run the gamut from shouting and making accusations to stonewalling and giving the silent treatment. When faced with thwarting ploys, leaders tend to respond passively (by playing along or doing nothing) or aggressively (by making threats and accusations of their own). However, the best approach involves taking the middle ground by addressing the ploy head-on.
“For instance, if your counterpart has stopped responding to you, you can simply say, ‘I don’t know how to interpret your silence,'” Green advised.
6) Reacting to a sore spot
We all have them – things about which we’re particularly sensitive. When someone brings them up, their mere mention hits a nerve, even in instances when the subject is broached completely innocently and without malice. It can be hard not to react emotionally when this happens under the best of circumstances, let alone when someone touches upon one of these vulnerabilities during a conversation that’s already contentious.
“Take the time to learn what hooks you,” Green recommended. “Just knowing where you’re vulnerable will help you stay in control when someone pokes you there.”
When preparing for a conversation that they anticipate to be difficult, it’s natural for people to rehearse what they want to say, but an overreliance on what is expected to happen could prove detrimental in the moment.
“Once you’ve started the discussion, your counterpart could react in any number of ways – and having a ‘script’ in mind will hamper your ability to listen effectively and react accordingly,” Green pointed out.
That being said, going into a discussion completely unprepared isn’t optimal either. Rather than attempting to plan everything out down to the letter, Green advised asking four questions:
– What is the problem?
– How would my counterpart define the problem?
– What is my preferred outcome to the problem?
– What is my preferred working relationship with my counterpart?
8) Making assumptions
Even when everyone participating in a conversation is speaking the same language, a lot gets lost in translation, which is why it’s important for everyone to take the time to state their perspectives as clearly as they can.
“In the fog of a hard talk, we tend to forget that we don’t have access to anyone’s intentions but our own,” noted Green. “Remember that you and your counterpart are both dealing with this ambiguity. If you get stuck, a handy phrase to remember is, ‘I’m realizing as we talk that I don’t fully understand how you see this problem.’ Admitting what you don’t know can be a powerful way to get a conversation back on track.”
9) Losing sight of the final objective
During the course of the conversation, the topic may shift away from the issue at hand. It can be easy to get caught up in bickering, especially if one person turns to thwarting ploys that rile up the others. Just as a company that stops focusing on the final goal may compromise its success, so too will a conversation participant who loses track of the main purpose of the discussion.
“Help prevent this by going into conversations with a clear, realistic preferred outcome; the knowledge of how you want your working relationship with your counterpart to be; and having done some careful thinking about any obstacles that could interfere with either,” Green concluded.
Leaders who follow the four pointers outlined in part one, resist getting drawn into a counterpart’s thwarting ploys, recognize their own sore spots, prepare but don’t rehearse, refrain from making assumptions and keep their objective in mind at all times are much more likely to have productive conversations.
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