Think of a recent critical conversation you’ve had that went poorly – what was it about? Why was it critical? What were the facts? What story played in your mind? What feelings did it generate? Did you use silence or violence to handle the situation?

I recently taught a class as part of Emory University’s MBA program on Difficult Conversations. It reiterated some fundamental skills that may prove to be very viable in 2008 and beyond. The discipline of crucial conversations and one’s ability to influence without authority is a key skill in business yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Other great titles such as Crucial Conversations (2002), which at last check had spent 20 months on BusinessWeek’s bestseller list; Winning With People by John C. Maxwell (2004); Crucial Confrontations (2005), which is currently on the New York Times bestseller list; Fierce Conversations (2002); and the most recently published Influencer (2008); reiterate the increased pressure for timely results through efficient and effective communication.

Furthermore, educational systems do not deliver or seldom deliver tools for that effective and efficient high-speed communication. To further exasperate the problem, multiculturalism and globalization have introduced new dimensions to “denotations and connotations” and, unfortunately, political correctness has made discussing different subjects a risky proposition.

In many ways, we don’t have time to build long-term relationships and e-mail continues to illustrate a grossly ineffective medium for its purpose.

So what can you do about it? At a recent PathBuilders mentor/mentee program, Chuck Papageorgiou, founder and managing partner of Ideasphere Consulting, discussed the following 5 tips:

1. Understand and leverage the dialogue model adapted from Crucial Conversations as it is highly universal and applicable in a broad manner.

The dialogue model transforms individual posturing from the two ends of the spectrum – silence and violence – to a common ground. From a position of silence, whether physical, emotional (such as retreat), political (with an absolute “yes”), or behavioral (by ignoring), one must go through See and Hear, Tell a Story, Feel and Act stages to breech safety and reach a pool of shared meaning. Those coming from a position of violence – whether physical, emotional (such as sarcasm), political (such as refrain, reframe), or behavioral (manifested by loudness), must also go through the same four stages to reach a pool of shared meaning. By piercing through the outer layers of silence and violence, you will not only reach a common safety ground, but each of those four attributes also becomes more constructive than destructive.

2. Use “I” language and open-ended questions to help avoid triggering defense mechanisms.

“I” language is a way to express how we feel about a situation without triggering a defensive response because “I feel” is neither defensive or offensive and it reinforces the fundamental fact that the only person you can control is you. Similarly, open-ended questions focus on the process and outcome vs. the “did you do it?” Information gathering vs. accusatory will always prevail. And it unequivocally requires thought before engaging mouth – a challenge for many to be sure.

3. Use contrast to set boundaries and avoid spiraling conversations.

Your department is experiencing turmoil because of rift rumors (which are not true). You have just hired a consulting firm to help you streamline your operations. How will you present the introduction of the project to your department because without contrasting techniques, you leave much to chance.

In an environment starving for information, only rumors, innuendos and false perceptions will be created. Contrasting techniques simply aim to set boundaries to the conversation with examples such as what I want and what I do not want. (For ex: “I want to understand why the production floor is late 80% of the time. I do not want to create any rumors of layoffs.”); what I mean vs. what I do not mean (For ex: “I want to review bottlenecks and I mean the technical term for inline capacity restraints. I do not mean to imply anything about the confidence of the operators.”); and what I believe vs. what I do not believe (For ex: “I believe your battlefield promotion was well deserved. I do not believe we have set you up with the tools to succeed.”)

4. Use physical mirroring to help bridge personal and cultural domains.

People often like people who are like themselves. Since we can’t all be the same, we look for similarities. Don’t confuse mirroring with mimicking. It is, however, the ability to match speech pace, breathing patterns and movement. It is critical to pace and then check and change to check for follow-up. If there is no follow-up, continue mirroring in another context. If there is follow-up, begin to move the person along, i.e. move to happy. For example, one of your employees has failed to deliver a crucial project as promised. You are angry, physically loud, fast paced, animated, and certainly not effectively listening. As the employee, how can you understand why your manager is angry and then try to calm her down (put that in front of the physical mirror)?

5. Use STATE as a framework to help structure the conversation.

Your manager asks you to look around the department and identify things that could be done better. You identify three situations that resulted from poor direction on her part. How do you present your findings to her? The STATE framework simply conveys:

  • S – Share your facts. (What do you see or hear?)
  • T – Tell your story. (What are your conclusions?)
  • A – Ask for their path. (How do they see it?)
  • T – Tentatively propose. (Where am I wrong?)
  • E – Encourage testing. (Even if it is different than mine, what is your perspective?)
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