People tend to wait for an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM /phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation.
Use these four important tips to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.
1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds.
We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.
2. Walk and talk.
One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.
3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter.
Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:
“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”
Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.
4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals.
We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.
These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others.
Written by Emily Hoffman, Vital Smarts
Emily has consulted and trained with non profit, start-up ventures, and major national corporations such as Eli Lily and The Chicago Board of Trade. Additionally, Emily has taught finance courses at Brigham Young University and trained corporate clients in Crucial Conversations.