Summer 2008 Bulletin: Overcoming the Challenge in Challenging Conversations

Friday, January 30, 2009

Summer 2008 Bulletin Overcoming the Challenge in Challenging Conversations
"If Bill would listen to me, he'd understand my approach makes more sense."

"I can't talk to Susan – all she wants to do is debate!"

There's a Bill and Susan in every department, arguably many, so what's the best way to communicate effectively with them?  Going head to head often makes things worse and avoidance means the issue never gets resolved.  So what are the other options?  

We tackle this very question in our workshops by providing our participants with many useful tools.  Yet the "Ah-ha's" experienced in the workshop quickly turn into "Uh-oh's" back at the office...  "I tried Technique A, but it didn't work!"

That's why we integrate the tools with the principles of preparation and practice.  These two critical behaviors help people to move beyond applying the techniques into developing effective communication skills that persist over time. In our "Challenging Conversations" workshop, we 'build in' the habits of preparation and practice as part of the curriculum. We explain below why we think these habits are so critical, and how we teach them.


Why It's Important
Humans have a tendency to rely on 'the known,' especially in times of stress.  When a conversation is difficult, new techniques or skills take a back seat to more-often used responses, the ones that are part of our neurological hardwiring. Preparing before a difficult conversation enables us to ground ourselves mentally in the principles of effective communication and increase the chance that we try out a new approach.    
All audiences are not the same. Most of us have developed ways of communicating that work for us a lot of the time, yet there are always some colleagues we can't figure out how to engage. Trying "more of the same," with greater gusto, isn't likely to have an impact.  Preparation helps us to be thoughtful about our audience, diagnose the unique dynamics of a situation and take an informed approach to the techniques as we use them.

How Preparation Works
Before jumping into a practice dialogue, we ask participants to do some advance thinking about the challenge facing them.  When we poll people to find out if they usually prepare for potentially tough conversations, most say yes.  Yet after participants go through the preparation exercise, many are surprised to find that they haven't been considering the most critical variables. In fact, some participants report that their most valuable takeaway was experiencing the difference preparation can make.   It's a worthwhile investment!
Preparation doesn't have to be done in isolation!  We purposefully structure exercises as clinics: participants are invited to present a real, work-related 'challenging conversation' they need to prepare for so that they and their colleagues can grapple with it together.  The exercise always produces powerful results. Not only do the participants work in the same organizational context, they often contribute relevant perspectives that can inform one's approach to the communication challenge.  Having learned the workshop techniques together, they discuss ways to use the communication frameworks that are highly relevant and contextually appropriate to the challenge. One of the most significant takeaways is that the group discovers its great potential as a preparation resource!


Why It's Important  
While preparation is an essential step, practice is the key to honing those skills over time.  Unlike other disciplines in which elegant formulas can predict clear outcomes, the "science" of communication is murky and rarely clear-cut.  It is as much art as science.  The realm of communication requires navigating nuances and drawing on techniques as tools to use throughout the journey.
Learning new techniques in a workshop is just the first step.  They may make perfect sense in a classroom setting, but the next test is to take them from a 'thinking' exercise into a 'doing' exercise.  When experimenting with new skills in our environment, we push our own limits and begin to experience new kinds of interactions with colleagues.  Through practice, we expand our communication repertoire.
Engaging with another person in a different way takes us – as well as the other – into new territory.  The metaphor often used to describe interpersonal relationships is that of a "dance."  Over time, we and our 'partners' develop predictable step patterns that, consciously or not, dictate the ways in which we interact.  When we decide to change the steps, our partners may be confused at first.  They may want to continue to perform the old routine, requiring us to be steadfast in our practice of a new one until our partner follows our new lead.

How Practice Works
Structured practice and follow-up provide opportunities to reflect on what's working and what's not.  Our workshop is designed to teach a set of principles, send participants out to test-drive them, and then reconvene to reflect on what happened.  Through discussions with colleagues, participants provide concrete examples of their experiences and outcomes.  Together the group engages in trouble-shooting, role-playing and reconfiguring communication approaches that can be taken back out into the 'field.' Over time, participants report a greater facility with the techniques and increased skill in communicating with "difficult" colleagues.
Practice is highly effective when paired with feedback. Between workshop sessions, we encourage participants to pair with colleagues who can observe their technique practice and provide specific feedback about what they see.  A partner can also serve as a sounding board prior to a conversation, and broaden one's perspective about how to approach particular challenges.  As we have consistently observed, one's colleagues are often the richest – and most accessible – resource for deepening our understanding of and application of new skill sets.

When experimenting with a new set of communication techniques, preparation and practice help us resist falling back into "business as usual," communicating in ways that have been sub-optimal.  By trying, testing and toying with new skills in advance, we can set the stage for engaging Bill and Susan in different – and more productive – conversations.

updated: 13 years ago