Based on the bestseller "Crucial Conversations" and my experiences, I am giving a 3-part talk to my Toastmasters club on how to make conversations that matter the most to us. The first part is called Listen.
This year, I began to work on a new project, one that would revolutionize my company's product. In just two weeks, I was able to move the project forward by a tremendous amount. I was proud and looking forward to the sprint demo, where I would get to present it in front of everyone—the frontend team, the backend team, the Vice President of Engineering, and the Chief Technology Officer.
Things went awry when it came time for feedback. The original developer called the new approach "completely useless"—not just once, but five times. I gotta admit, I was hurt, cause I worked damn hard on this. But throughout this developer's feedback, I was able to remain calm and respond appropriately. It was because I knew how to make crucial conversations.
A crucial conversation is a talk between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions differ, and (3) emotions run strong. It's an easy recipe for conflicts, and it's something that many of us don't know how to do well.
There's no shame in that. When faced with an obstacle, we're biologically driven to a fight-or-flight response—either become violent and try to feel in control, or become avoidant and try to play a victim. Neither of these is a good solution. We're also environmentally driven. From our parents, friends, and coworkers, we don't see many good examples of crucial conversations. When it's time to make our own, we just don't know what to do.
Well, I have good news. Every one of us can learn how to make a crucial conversation. It's a skill, just like public speaking and leadership are, that is to be practiced and mastered over time. It takes three steps to make a crucial conversation. I want you to repeat after me: Listen, Speak, Decide.
Today, we will cover the first part, Listen. That is, to listen to what people are saying and how they are saying it. By the end of this talk, you will recognize when people don't feel safe, you will understand why people don't feel safe, and you will know what to do to restore safety.
In 2016, I got into a heated argument. My coworker, Sam, and I each wanted to develop a website for our client. We had different ideas on who should lead the project and what technologies we should use.
Our crucial conversation actually had a great start. Sam and I met (1) face-to-face, (2) outside of work, (3) along with a group of people who were neutral to our ideas. Nonetheless, our conversation quickly became a mess when Sam and I began to feel unsafe in the presence of the other.
When people feel unsafe, they exhibit physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Their stomach gets tight or their eyes get dry. They feel hurt, scared, or angry. They raise their voice and point fingers, or they withdraw themselves and become silent. We need to be vigilant and look out for these signs in both ourselves and the other person. When people don't feel safe, a crucial conversation can't continue.
We can also listen to how people are expressing their ideas. Earlier, I mentioned fight-or-flight response. Some resort to violence by forcing others to agree with them. They may speak in terms of absolutes, cut others off when they are speaking, put a label on them, or even threaten them. Some resort to silence by withholding information. They may change the subject, show sarcasm, sugarcoat the issue, or simply, leave the room.
Ask yourself, how many of these ill techniques have you used in your conversations? Quite a few, I imagine. I know I had used some of them wrongly in the past.
Now that we know when people don't feel safe, let's look at why people don't feel safe. I'm going to go back to the story of Sam.
Both Sam and I were leaders at our company and had high stakes in our professional development. Our crucial conversation that started out well became a mess when we began to falsely attribute not leading the project with not having respect from the other person. "I have years of experience in web design, so I should be the one leading the project." "No, I have this position at our company, so I should be the one leading instead." We began to think that the other had malicious intent when that was never the case when we started.
I think a great example where people always feel safe is our Toastmasters meeting. Every Monday, three or four of us give a speech and get feedback. It's a crucial conversation where you are not allowed to respond right away but only listen to the other person. You have zero defense. So ask yourself, why were you able to absorb feedback that is potentially threatening so well? It's because you believed that the other person respected you and had your best interest. You, in return, respected the other person and their opinions, even if you didn't fully agree.
Respect and good intent go a long way in making people feel safe. Before my crucial conversation with Sam, I wish I had written down, I know I respect Sam. Now, what do I want for me? What do I want for Sam? What do I want for us?
Luckily, I was able to prevent the same mistake with that developer in the beginning. I had great respect for them and knew that they were critiquing ideas, and not me as a developer. I believed that they had good intent, so I wanted to listen to their feedback more.
There will be times when the other person, despite our showing respect and good intent, just blows up or refuses to speak. The thing to keep in mind is that every sentence, even a silent one, has a history that we may not know about.
This is going to be tough, but we have to encourage the other person to trace their behavior back to the root cause. To do so, we need to restore their safety. There are three things that we can do when we listen: Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase (AMP).
First, ask to get things rolling. "What's going on?" "Please let me know if you see it differently." When we have genuine interest in the other person, their thoughts, and their well-beings, they feel more compelled to express themselves.
Second, mirror to confirm their feelings, especially when their body language and voice don't match their words. "You say that you're okay, but your voice...? You seem upset." "You look nervous. Do you want to take a quick break?" By staying with the observed actions, we show concern for the other person.
Lastly, paraphrase to acknowledge their story. "Let me see if I understood you right. You feel upset that I didn't run the report by you, that I'm leaving you out of the project." By telling their story in our own words, we show that we are actively listening to them, that it is okay for them to talk candidly. The key to paraphrase is to remain calm and collected.
In summary, it takes three steps to make a crucial conversation: Listen, Speak, Decide.
Today, we learned the first step, Listen. When you notice that the other person doesn't feel safe, show that you respect them and have good intent for them. When they become violent or silent, use AMP—Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase—to restore their safety and figure out the root cause.
Next time, we will look at the second step, Speak. How do you assert yourself and persuade others? Even more, when you feel hurt, scared, or angry, how do you stay in dialogue?