How to Approach Conversations That Matter, Without the Worry

In: BlogDate: Aug 25, 2021By: Paul Gapper

Have you ever found yourself wishing that you could have a candid conversation with a friend or colleague but fearing that, if you did so, it might end that relationship? Welcome to the world of conversations that matter.

Paul explains how best to approach these conversations in this blog.

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I have always been intrigued by how we communicate uncomfortable emotions, particularly annoyance. Isn't it easier just to not say anything? Except that, in my experience, the emotion doesn’t go away. It sits, grumbling away in my stomach, or causing a flurry of angry thoughts. 

But what if I say something? At this point, a whole movie starts up in my head, called The Consequences. It's a classic disaster film, where everything short of earthquakes, firestorms and tidal waves occur.

In 2011, Patterson et al wrote a book called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. In it, they outline a whole approach for approaching these conversations.

Let's go back to that first dilemma: tell my colleague they're making a mistake and lose the relationship or don't tell them and keep the relationship. This is what they would call The Fool's Choice. An assumption that it's one or the other. What if, instead, we could simply combine the two: tell my colleague that they're making a mistake and keep the relationship?

My experience in having talked to people who have taken that step, is that is exactly what happens. They speak and, not only do they keep the relationship, it also changes in positive ways they didn't expect. 

But how do you approach that conversation? The first step is to break down what is happening: how am I acting? How am I feeling? What story am I telling myself? What are the facts?

For example, we might notice that we are becoming irritable at meetings or defensive at our manager's input; that we are feeling undermined and undervalued, with a loss of confidence; that we are telling ourselves that they are micromanaging us, that they don't trust us, or that they don’t think we’re capable; finally, the facts, the manager is asking for daily meetings and updates.

I have noticed that when people try this exercise for themselves, they report feeling better about the situation, a little more in control. My impression is that our thoughts, stories and feelings are a little like clothes in a washing machine: tumbling round and round in our head. It is hard to identify what is what. But when we bring them out and start to separate them, the situation becomes clearer.

We could, at this stage, apply a very simple feedback model: what’s the behaviour? What's the impact? What’s going on? "I've noticed you’ve been asking me for daily meetings and updates. I'm feeling undermined. What's going on?"

Notice that what we've done is to start at the end of our four initial questions: what are the facts? Then, what are the feelings?

You might have noticed that we've missed the story question. In my spare time, I write fiction. I have heard people say, "I could never do that." But it has always struck me that we are all, without exception, terrific storytellers. I remember hearing someone talk about having met a person they didn’t like on the street. She said, "She looked back to see if I was looking at her, but I wasn't." You try and figure that one out.

We take the facts of our experience and create stories from them. "I texted X yesterday, they still haven't replied, it must mean that…" Fill in the gap.

Often, we don't notice that we have created a story, we just assume that what we are thinking is the truth.

What if we could offer up that story to the person it's about and find out from them if it is true or not? In Conversations That Matter, we are invited to take our facts/impact feedback a step further.  Here are the facts, this is the story I have been telling myself about them, am I right? For example, "I notice you’ve been asking for daily meetings and updates. I get the sense that you don’t trust me, or don't think I'm capable. Is that right?"

Important here, is the tone with which you express this. It should be tentative, as if you are testing the water, still not sure. The aim is to find out what is going on for the other person.

If you're anything like me, you're already beginning to wonder how the other person will respond. It could be okay, but it may not. So, what do I do? 

Fortunately, there are different ways to keep the conversation constructive.  If you’re interested, we're going to talk about them at our next course on Conversations That Matter.

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Paul Gapper

Paul is a Masters qualified trainer with experience in interpersonal skills, work skills and management training. He has worked in the public, private and voluntary sectors for over fifteen years. Paul has a Distinction in the Institute of Personnel Development Training Certificate and the teacher-training certificate for Mindfulness-Based Approaches from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. In 2017, Paul was a Finalist for the Learning Professional of the Year at the 2017 Learning Awards.

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