Most of us would love to communicate better, so we can make our case or get our points across. Our underlying goal is to understand the other well enough so we can make ourselves understood more effectively, which is a slight twist on the Covey precept, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Three Communication Techniques for Tough Talks
I’ve road-tested these approaches over the last twenty years — first, by handling complex and confronting issues with my kids, and then by validating them with adults.
1. Parallel Conversational Processing
In Western culture, the norm is to look people in the eye to show forthrightness and respect. An early lesson we teach children in manners and good conduct is to look directly at the other person while shaking hands. Later in life, the same lesson is part of how you get ready for interviews, meetings, and the like. In fact, we sometimes view candidates who don’t make eye contact as less trustworthy or less engaged.
But oddly enough, face-to-face is not always be the best way to communicate. When a relationship is not completely comfortable, or when you’re discussing a difficult subject, side-by-side seating can take some of the pressure off. It gives listeners time to prepare a response, and spares them from being stared at or made to feel inadequate for not having an instant comeback. They can look away if they feel the need, which might be offensive if they were face to face, but which can free them up enough to figure out their answer.
Good spots include the front seat of the car (if the driver’s not the one in the hot seat), or a banquette in a restaurant (if being in public is all right), or even at the kitchen counter, performing separate but related food prep. Side-by-side seating creates the opportunity to be quiet for a few moments without feeling unresponsive or slow-witted – the way people can when they’re facing each other directly across a desk or kitchen table or some other relationship chasm.
2. Turning Down the Volume
When you’re discussing something you really care about, whether it’s your marketing plan or the concern that your child is being bullied, it’s normal to raise your voice a little louder, to speak a little faster, to sound a little more intense. But intensity and volume aren’t always read as enthusiasm; they can be perceived as highhandedness or imperiousness, or — on the other side of the spectrum — desperation. Either way, coming on too strong takes all the air out of the room and can discourage response. When you talk too loud no one can bear to hear you, so try to dial it down a notch to get more interaction and less automatic resistance.
3. Ask, Don’t Tell
Unproductive intensity can also get ratcheted up when you make a statement or take a position. The other person can feel compelled to take a similarly strong position or make a similarly strong statement, purely out of self-defense.
Instead, see if you can craft a leading question that encourages a more open, less defensive response. Not a prosecutorial type question like: “Don’t you think you should have done thus-and-so…?” but an open-ended, even tentative question: “I was wondering what you would think about trying a different approach…?” People are always willing to tell you more when they believe you actually want to hear what they have to say.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Or you could ask, very calmly and quietly: “Why don’t you come sit next to me here at the counter while we have a cup of coffee, and maybe you could tell me a little about your opinion?”
The funny thing is that you never know when one of these less confrontational techniques might just happen to provide a little protective cover or face-saving for you as well. And because no successful communication is one-way, at a later date I’ll go over some of the fine points of reception, i.e. listening — and how to be a better audience for others’ communication.
Onward and upward,