This is the third in a series of blog posts inspired by Crucial Conversations, our 2019 theme book that all Members received. These blogs will help you prepare for our September 19th Breakfast Forum: Best Practices In Family Business Communication.
When it comes to communication, we focus too much on what we say and not nearly enough on how we say it. Or, as the authors of the book Crucial Conversations say it, “When it’s safe, you can say anything . . .people rarely become defensive simply because of what you’re saying. They only become defensive when they no longer feel safe. The problem is not the content of your message, but the condition of the conversation” (p. 55)
For instance, in family business, people often try to have sensitive and emotional conversations in the middle of the workday after simply showing up unannounced into a family member’s office. Put yourself in that family member’s shoes and think about the conditions of that conversation – without anyone saying a word:
- I’m working on something and am interrupted.
- I’m asked to talk about a sensitive topic without any mental or emotional preparation.
- I’m trying to transition from what I was doing while you’re talking to me so I might be missing part of what you’re saying.
Or, you start a conversation with a sibling that you know will be contentious but because you are uncomfortable you ignore the signs that say she is getting upset.
Recognize the Signs
There are two sets of signs that tell us when the conditions of the conversations have become more important to address than the content of what we’re trying to say: Silence or Violence (p. 58). We often will respond to an unsafe conversation by either withdrawing or by trying to control or attack. These come with physical signs too: face gets red, voice raises, fingers get pointed, eyes roll or glance off disinterestedly. If you are good at dialogue, you’ll watch for those signs in others and address them rather than trying to have the conversation with someone who isn’t in a good place.
Restore Purpose & Respect
If you notice things are getting emotional or unsafe for others, be sure to mention it. Don’t ignore it when conditions don’t feel right – talk about it! First, try to determine if something has broken down in one of two areas: Mutual Purpose or Mutual Respect (pp. 77-82). To determine this, ask: Do others believe I care about their goals in this conversation and do they trust my motives? If not, Mutual Purpose is at risk. Also ask yourself (or the other person), do others believe I respect them? If not, Mutual Respect is at risk.
Once you open up about how the meeting is feeling, try this three-step approach offered by the authors of Crucial Conversations to make it safe again:
- Apologize. If you have violated someone’s respect, even if accidentally, apologize for it.
- Clarify. “When others misunderstand either your purpose or your intent, use Contrasting. Start with what you don’t intend or mean [but you suspect the other person might be assuming]. Then explain what you do intend or mean” (p. 102).
- Create a Mutual Purpose. Can we agree on what we are talking about and why it’s a challenge?
Once you have that mutual purpose, you can step back into the conversation, now ensuring there is Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect.
Acknowledge Your Own Stress
We talked earlier about recognizing the signs in other people for when a conversation feels unsafe. It’s just as important that we recognize those signs in ourselves as well. So, for reflection ask yourself what your default response is when confronted with a difficult conversation. Do you tend toward Violence or Silence? Here are the descriptions from the book:
Masking consists of sarcasm, sugarcoating, or couching our true opinions in an ambiguous way.
Avoiding involves steering completely away from sensitive subjects.
Withdrawing means pulling out of a conversation altogether.
Controlling consists of cutting others off, overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes, or changing the subject.
Labeling is putting a label on people so we can dismiss them under a general stereotype or category.
Attacking is, well, using words to attack people instead of ideas. This includes belittling, being dismissive, or threatening.