A few years ago, I had an experience where there was a communication problem. And instead of bringing the problem to the attention of the offending party, I festered. You see, I'm "not a confrontational person." And because of the nature of this particular situation, I also harbored a fear of retaliation...more specifically, I worried that if I said something, someone whom I love dearly would pay the price.
So I said nothing. And I hoped things would improve with time. But the opposite happened. The situation deteriorated and the very thing I feared, a loved one getting hurt, was exactly what ensued! My inner critic admonished me, "you should know better, isn't communication what you do for a living!" That statement held some truth. But rather than sink into the shame of my own imperfections, I realized this was a ripe learning opportunity, not only for myself but for others too. Hope won't solve your communication problems. Yes, it might be a hard subject to bring up. Yes, you might experience an awkward conversation. Yes, you may be met with resistance. AND, things will absolutely get worse if you say nothing at all. So, what will solve your communication problem? You guessed it, communication! But not just any communication, proactive, compassionate, and constructive communication are key. Here are four tips that I have used personally and taught to clients' to help them address communication problems so they lead to win-win-win solutions that everyone is committed to. These tips are based on the latest research on the neuroscience of conversation and the work of Judith E. Glaser. 1) Deconstruct the situation In order to turn a difficult conversation into a constructive dialogue, you need to take time to prepare. You can start by deconstructing the situation. Take some time to reflect on what's going on and how the communication problem started. The following reflection questions can help you deconstruct the situation:
How did the situation escalate?
Where did things go wrong?
How did this situation make you feel?
How does this situation relate to other past experiences you've had?
By investing time and energy into deconstructing the situation, you are setting yourself up to engage with intention instead of reacting emotionally. Emotions often run high in situations where there's miscommunication. Stepping away to get a handle on your own thinking, needs, and expectations inevitably results in better outcomes than trying to fix things while fired up. 2) Separate fact from fiction Now that you've started to deconstruct the situation, it's important that you take another step back to distinguish between the facts and the fiction. This seems like a simple enough idea and yet we often confuse the stories we tell ourselves, "they just don't care" as facts. We all have a little storyteller inside our brain; we make up stories to create meaning out of the otherwise random things that happen to us in life. If we aren't careful, we will cling to the story as the only reality, then fixate on convincing others our perception of reality is right instead of resolving the real root issue. For example, let's imagine that you are a software engineer and the salesperson didn't include you in some critical email correspondences with a client where they made promises you can't fulfill. Yes, that's incredibly frustrating and it's understandable that you'd be upset. However, the facts are simple, you weren't included in a conversation where decisions were made that affect you. The rest of the story, that they don't care, are out to get you or just always have to be in control, is the fiction. Those are details you're making up to justify a situation that otherwise doesn't make sense to you. As you deconstruct the conversation and separate fact from fiction you gain clarity about what it is you're really upset about. You're able to focus the conversation by having a clear understanding of what it is you're actually advocating for instead of arguing that your story is right (they don't care) and their story is wrong (perhaps they're thinking that you never check your email anyway). 3) Prime your conversational partner There are four words that categorically create a sense of dread, "we need to talk!" Anytime I hear those words my stomach drops, my heart races, and my mind starts spinning with worst-case scenario plans. Simply put, that's a counterproductive way to have a constructive conversation because your conversational partner is already on high alert, mounting their defense before you even begin to talk. Instead, you want to prime your conversational partner for trust. The best way to build trust is by making a genuine appeal to connect first and foremost. So before you get down to business you might want to ask how their recent vacation was or how their sick mother is doing or how they like their new house. Connecting releases oxytocin in the brain, which builds trust. From there, even a simple reframe makes a big difference. So instead of "we need to talk," you could say, "Hey, I was wondering if now is a good time to talk about the new contract with Smith Co? I want to make sure our expectations are aligned so we wow them!" If now's not a good time for them to talk, set a time to revisit the topic of conversation together. That way you're priming your conversational partner for a constructive exchange by first building trust, and second setting expectations. 4) Be open to influence As you engage in this difficult conversation, be aware of your mindset. After following the first three steps, you're not likely to start the conversation all fired up, which is good. But anytime we talk about an emotional subject, we run the risk of getting easily worked up, which usually results in neurophysiological reactions that lead to becoming entrenched in a position. Approaching difficult conversations while being open to influence makes a world of difference. It's like bringing a beginner's mindset to your conversation, you're genuinely curious instead of being clouded by your own judgments. When you are open to influence, you are able to listen better, which enables you to understand the experiences and reality of your conversational partner. By truly understanding where your conversational partner is coming from you can more effectively advocate for addressing the issue at hand. With their needs in mind you can paint a picture of mutual success; i.e. when sales and the dev team have a shared understanding of client expectations they can effectively satisfy the client's needs, which leads to repeat business = everyone wins! What will it take to ensure that happens? What obstacles need to be removed? These are questions that can't be answered in isolation. It takes all parties involved in the communication problem to work together, and when that happens the solution is always far better than you ever imagined possible! After my aforementioned communication problem blew up in my face, I could no longer sweep it under the rug. In following these four tips we were able to work together to fix the damage done. I did not know how to solve the problem on my own, but because I was in a co-creating conversation I didn't need to have the answer. We each contributed our own knowledge and experience to collectively co-create a phenomenal solution.