Nobody really likes those high-stakes conversations where both opinions and feelings run strong. But we can’t avoid them forever. InterNations team member Margit shares what she’s recently learned about crucial conversations thanks to our personal development measures. And why handling them with care is especially important in remote-work settings, international teams, and lateral leadership positions.
We all know and probably dread those conversations at work. I definitely do. The kind of conversations that are key to meeting our goals and maintaining essential relationships within or outside our organization.
I very much dislike these so-called crucial conversations. And the more crucial they are, the less I like them. They also make me afraid of turning into the comic book character “The Hulk”, changing from a mild-mannered office worker into an angry green monster during a heated debate.
Working remotely doesn’t necessarily make them any easier. Technology creates new opportunities for misunderstandings. So, our remote-first model means that I have even more potential pitfalls to avoid.
Fortunately, our HR Team came to my rescue with this year’s official training agenda. At InterNations, team members can choose among several in-house workshops on personal development topics. Signing up for one on confronting crucial conversations was an incredible opportunity.
I was relieved to realize that I’m not the only one who dislikes these conversations. Quite a few of my colleagues also do, though not necessarily for the same reasons. And more importantly, the training helped us develop strategies to face them.
Here are my main takeaways — which I hope will contain some practical tips for others as well.
Step 1: Take a break (and a deep breath) before all crucial conversations.
There are two different ways of reacting to conflict. It’s important to know which extreme we tend towards. One option is to avoid conflict whenever possible because we prefer harmony to assertiveness. The other one is trying to win an argument at all costs because losing would make us feel stupid, embarrassed, or ashamed.
Neither way of dealing with conflict is actually helpful. Avoiding the conversation often leads to the issue becoming bigger and bigger until it can’t be ignored anymore. By that point it’ll be even harder to solve. But being too assertive and bossy risks damaging our relationships with co-workers or clients.
We often react the way we do simply because we don’t like having these conversations sprung upon us. Feeling ambushed makes it difficult to avoid knee-jerk reactions.
Therefore, the first step towards having an important conversation is to play for time. There’s no shame in making up a polite excuse to exit a chat room — or an actual room. We can use this pause to manage our emotions and to strategize. We can then have the actual discussion in the right setting later on.
My favorite piece of advice for this step was that we need to question our assumptions, for example, about the possible reasons for other people’s behavior. In most cases, these assumptions will only be partly true at best.
Step 2: Always practice active listening.
Though I’d heard of this method before, I had never given it much thought. But it turned out to be one of the most valuable tips for me.
So, what is active listening? And why is it important?
The first part of active listening consists of summarizing what the others have said. This helps us test — and often disprove — our unspoken assumptions, instead of letting our imagination run wild.
Paraphrasing helps avoid misunderstandings, too. In multinational teams, such as at InterNations, misunderstandings are sometimes due to cultural differences or language barriers. Most team members aren’t native English speakers, and language skills might vary. Rephrasing a statement in a neutral manner, then asking the other party to confirm, clarifies what they actually mean.
Then, and only then, can we bring up our own perspective. We should choose our words carefully, phrasing counter-arguments as neutrally as possible. To avoid creating a sense of defensiveness, we can start by asking for permission. “May I explain my point of view?” creates more goodwill than “yeah, but …!”
While conflicts thrive on speed, active listening slows down the conversation. That way, it also helps us manage the emotions of others, not just our own. It gives us time to check their reactions. Sarcastic responses or raised voices show that they’re uncomfortable, and it’s time to de-escalate even further.
Active listening also signals engagement and respect. If someone feels we’re honestly trying to understand them, they’ll usually do the same for us.
Showing empathy and respect doesn’t mean being a pushover. We can still politely insist on our rights during a conversation. For example, the right to ask for information, to refuse a request, or to consult somebody else.
Step 3: Focus on mutual purpose in a crucial conversation.
The advice above helped me understand why crucial conversations aren’t about “winning”. Winning an argument might equal losing a relationship.
They aren’t about fair vs. unfair, either. We all have different notions of what is fair. The perfect outcome is not an abstract goal, such as rightness or fairness. It’s a concrete result: a workable solution that is acceptable to everyone involved.
There are certain strategies to arrive at this solution. We may often have to delegate tasks without a clearly defined leadership role. But how does this work without relying on authority and hierarchy?
We can bring up a mutually desirable goal. It could be giving a successful presentation to our management board. Or simply finishing on time before the weekend.
By asking the right questions at that point, we can signal that we’re all in this together. “What can we do to make sure that…?” would be a typical example.
Last but not least, we should offer the other party a choice — or at least the illusion of one. We can provide several options for how to proceed, from our ideal outcome to the bare minimum we would accept. We can even visualize these options or present road maps to potential solutions during the discussion.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to turn me into the perfect active listener, skilled negotiator, and lateral leader. Perfecting these techniques requires lots of time and practice. But the next time that one of those dreaded conversations comes up, I’ll at least feel much better prepared!
Image credit: InterNations / Pexels (Yan Krukov)
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