conflict management

Is the way you communicate holding you back? How to polish your technique. (a series)

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We all think we’re pros.

We’ve been communicating for years, decades, and we’re pretty good at it.

Except when we’re not.

Whether you’d call yourself an expert or you’re just getting started on the journey of better conversations, we all have room to grow.

This is the first in a series of posts (check back for more!) about improving your communications and I’ll cover some of the basics as well as some of the more nuanced, but conversation-saving, elements of connecting with the people around you.

Let’s get started, because where you start really matters.

Think back to your last conversation that didn’t go well.

How did it begin?

You’re probably thinking about what you said (or what they said). The words. How you said them. The background of the whole conversation.

Let me ask a different question: Did you begin already knowing the (right) answer?

We often do, even when we think we’re starting with an open mind.

Beginning with the firm belief that you don’t know the answer is the first key to successful communication.

Most of us are probably already lining up the reasons why that can’t be right. One mouse-click away from jumping to the next article, but really consider that question.

How often do you start an important conversation already knowing what the “right” answer is? Or what the field of “possible” answers looks like? Most of us do this without evening being aware of it.

Obviously, there are times when the right answer really is the right answer. How to sweep a fire extinguisher, the temperature at which water boils. Those aren’t the kinds of conversations or facts that we struggle with.

When you believe that you don’t know the right answer, you make space in the conversation for options. You widen the field. You let other people into the conversation with their perspectives, their knowledge, and their experience.

But what if I do know the right answer.

You don’t.

We are flawed decision-makers. We have a bias towards what we already know, we surround ourselves with information that supports our thinking, and we don’t challenge our opinions or question our own ideas often enough.

(There’s a large body of research on this topic, you can find some of it in the books and sites below.)

You can’t know the right answer until you’ve opened your mind enough to look around. Otherwise, you just know what you think is the right answer and you haven’t done your homework.

If you start your conversation from your answer, it may feel like you’re several steps down the road, saving time and heading toward a better decision, when you’re actually heading off in the wrong direction.

What you need in complicated situations is a deep pool of information to draw from, and you alone don’t have all the information.

Does this mean I have to hide what I know just to make people feel like they’re part of the decision?

No. That’s actually just doing the same thing we’re trying to avoid. Put what you know out there, into the pool, but invite others first, fill it up together before you make your decision.

For example,

If you bring your team together to solve systematic problems – say you’re having routine failures in your ability to deliver products on time – and you know that what’s not working is the supervisors’ oversight of the deadlines, you might focus on that part of the system.

You might argue with me that you know this, because you’ve seen communications between supervisors and their staff. It’s all pretty clear.

Ask yourself: what if you’re wrong?

The cost of beginning with your answer may be missing the critical information that helps you actually solve the problem.

You could begin by assuming that the broken link is in the supervisor-employee communications, alienating everyone in the room in the process.

If instead you begin by sharing what you’ve seen (facts only!) and asking what they know, you may unearth a series of other data points that helps you all see the full picture.

You may learn that there are problems with other parts of the system, or that an earlier production phase isn’t working, leaving your supervisor-employee team scrambling to make up time at the cost of quality.

If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

Learning to make space for new information will improve the decisions you and your team make.

Key take-aways

If you hear yourself beginning a conversation with any of these red-flag phrases, pause, reframe, and invite others into the pool of information:

“I think we should…..”

“The way to solve this problem is….”

“What if we did……”

“We’ve already done this so……” (sets you up to continue a pattern or build on past decisions)

Consider these as alternatives:

“How may ways could we…..”

“Are there ways to achieve multiple goals here…..”

“What are the options we have used before and what haven’t we used…..”

“What are we trying to achieve (not how)….”

“If someone new walked in the door, what do you think they would do……” (opens up options beyond what you’ve already done)

 

For more about the pool of information idea, read Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzier 

For better decision-making, try Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath 

For why starting with being right doesn’t work, consider Better Leaders, Better Teams by Roger Schwarz

Check back or sign up for notifications if you’d like to receive more tips to improve your communications.

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Why face-to-face is still relevant in a digital world

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I had the privilege of speaking at the national American Planning Association conference this past week about creating concurrence from conflict. Planners? They’re the folks in your community who are grappling with complex questions: how should we grow? do we have enough affordable housing? traffic? sustainability and resiliency as the global climate changes?

The buzz was about technology, apps for managing community input, mapping, and social media and yet, when I headed down the stairs to our session, the hallway was overflowing with people who wanted to talk about how to deal with people face-to-face.

In this age of digital interface, personal interactions are still where it’s at.

Digital can be loud, it can be very effective, and it can rouse us from our apathy to take part in the workings of our local government. On the receiving end,  digital makes the world move faster and faster, comments come in on a tidal wave, and well-orchestrated campaigns can entirely shift the tenor of a conversation.

A friend of mine shared an experience she had working in a well-to-do college community:

After two years of putting together a thoughtful plan with a great amount of public input and consensus, a small, well-organized and well-funded group entered the discussion. They funded some slick advertisements, ran them on the local TV channels, and completely changed the tenor of the conversation. Two years of careful consensus-building was voted down in one meeting.

That happens. It’s democracy in action.

Why should we bother with the face-to-face when it might all go down the tubes?

Because we are human beings. We need to connect. When we do, our relationships flourish and our understanding of each others’ perspectives can broaden our own point of view. We learn from each other.

In an informal survey of planners, the top three ways in which they interacted with stakeholders was in formal meetings (public hearings, advisory boards) and in face-to-face meetings.

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We have to know how to interact in person. This is not always easy.

It’s hard to meet someone halfway when they’re angry. In fact, you usually have to go more than half way. If you’re a local government employee today, you are probably overworked in an environment with a low level of trust and satisfaction in government. This is a shame because just about everyone I know who works in local government does so by choice. There is a deep satisfaction in going home at night knowing that you’ve spent your day working for the betterment of your community. Whether you repair pot-holes, recycle waste, design streets, or try to help your town figure out how to grow in an enduring way, you’ve bought in to the future.

Yet you’re often met with distrust, demands you can’t meet, and a level of anger and negativity that can be daunting and discouraging.

What to do?

Get to know the people you work for. Sit down with them. Talk it out. Almost without exception, when you can help get past the us-them dynamic to a conversation about what we all have in common, you knit the fabric together, tighter. After all, most of us want the same things from our communities: A safe place to live, meaningful work, education for our children, choices about how we spend our time, and places to interact with each other.

It’s often as easy as asking: can we talk?

You may be surprised by how often the answer is: yes!