Stop talking to improve communication

Sometimes we talk too much and communicate too little. This is particularly the case in heated exchanges that are fuelled by high emotions, risks, stakes or high levels of uncertainty. Parties become so focused on telling their story that they forget that the purpose of communication is to improve understanding.

So next time you find yourself in a heated dispute with a close friend, family member, loved, business partner or your enemy – see if you can try the following, somewhat different, but very powerful technique:

  1. Sit next to each other, side-by-side.
  2. Open a new document in the word processor on your computer or tablet.
  3. Then let the other person write everything they want to say.
  4. Then… and only then do you go through and make your comments… in writing.
  5. Rinse and repeat steps 3 and 4 until you find agreement.

I used this approach in a very difficult and heated conversation in the last week. After just two cycles both parties agreed and the emotions completely dissipated? How is this possible?

Here’s are a few explanations:

  • First of all, how often do we – in arguments – get to finish everything we want to say before interrupted? Rarely? Never? Much of the escalation in conflict is directly related to the frustration of not feeling understood. So letting the other party finish talking will go a long way to preventing conflict.
  • Do our words ever come out wrong and we just wish we could stop them mid-air? But by that time it is already too late and we unintentionally created or fuelled the conflict further? Letting the each party carefully choose his or her words on the computer means we remove this unnecessary pollution before it can cause any damage.
  • And who can relate to the urge to interrupt and correct the other party when they say something you disagree with? Our urgency is driven by our fear that a failure to argue now might signal agreement! By instead leaving the words there on the screen in front of you means you have all the time in the world to go back to, and counter each point – if you so desire.
  • And how hard is it to clarify misunderstandings in the heat of battle? “What I meant to say was…” It’s difficult! But on the screen you just have to write “Aha, I see you understood this as X. What I really meant was Y!”
  • And in the argument our main focus is the point(s) of disagreement, so 100% of our focus is on disagreement. What we fail to acknowledge is that we actually do agree on a lot! By instead highlighting all the words in the document that are in agreement we realise just how much agreement there is, and just how small the disagreement is in contrast.
  • Similarly in arguments we often repeat ourselves because we don’t feel understood. On the document we can simplify the interaction by agreeing to delete duplicates. Nothing will be ignored, as everything will be commented on.
  • And of course, in very heated interactions we occasionally 🙂 say things that we know are not true, e.g. exaggerations like “You always do this!”. Again, on the screen it is easy to comment “Hmm… would you agree that sometimes be more fair and accurate than always
  • Finally, when the other person tells you the words, then he or she is the problem. But when you sit side-by-side, looking at the screen together you are collaborators working on a problem; to clean up the words on screen and find agreement. It is now longer “you vs. me” but rather “us vs. the limitations of communication”.

Using this process we successfully removed all pollution, reframed all unconstructive language to be constructive, clarified all assumptions/emotions/perceptions, removed all lies/exaggerations, marked all areas of agreement, removed repetition, and in the end there was simply nothing left to disagree on.

Which is consistent with the negotiation premise that over 90% of all disagreement is merely caused by a lack of understanding due to inadequate communication.

Afterwards I asked the other party how they felt about this process. They smiled, nodded and said: “I liked it! And I really felt that I could be more honest this way.”

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Eyes on the prize

The blog post on the video about reverend Wade Watts vs the KKK turned out to be very popular. So let us here help the reader identify another key behaviour that helped the reverend achieve such an inspiring outcome. The behaviour? Remaining constructive.

We negotiate to get what we want. But there are many reasons for why we consistently fail:

  • Often we don’t have a good understanding of what we really want (our interests or needs).
  • Often we set an outcome that on the face of it looks good to us, but we haven’t fully understood all the negative reactions, and unintended consequences of that outcome.
  • Often we set a goal for what we want that is completely incompatible with what the other party wants, so they will resist us every step of the way instead of working with us.
  • Often we lack the creativity or tools to figure out exactly how to reach that desired outcome.

And lastly – we often lose track of our goal along the way. In particular, when things don’t go our way we can get caught up in:

  • A passive and unproductive state of wallowing in painful feelings of regret, resentment, hurt, uncertainty or hopelessness.
  • An active state of pursuing unconstructive goals such as identifying fault, placing blame, or getting even with those person(s) we consider to be obstacle(s) to progress.

As effective negotiators we instead consistently keep our eyes on the prize. We avoid getting caught up in our own emotions. We seek to stay rational, proactive and constructive. Every step, action or behaviour we take is the best step towards the desired outcome.

It doesn’t matter if we just failed, if someone let us down, or if we experienced bad news, bad luck or negative surprises. We consistently pay attention to the desired outcome, and then we make sure that our next step is one that is most likely to move us closer to that outcome.

Or as it is frequently referred to in negotiation circles: “Don’t get mad… don’t get even… get what you want!”

Removing the need for negotiation

“You pay $150 dolla!!”
“No, I’m not paying anything!”
“Your fault, you pay $150 dolla!”
“No, it was your fault. I’m not paying anything!”

I move over to the curb as my friend and an enraged taxi driver continue their dialogue in the middle of the street. Cars on either side are incessantly using their car horns to signal their frustration with the gridlock. Some try to slowly squeeze past in the small gap that is not taken up by the taxis. Meanwhile the line of cars is rapidly growing in length.

“You open door, you pay me $150 dolla!”
“Forget it. You’re the one who overtook us!

As my friend had exited our taxi, another taxi had overtaken us, resulting in a small collision. While our taxi was scratch free (well, no additional scratches from the collision), the side mirror assembly of the other car was now in pieces on the ground.

“You pay me $150 dolla!”
“Hey, there is no way that mirror costs $150 dollars!”

This move was a mistake. By engaging in the conversation about cost, my friend could be perceived as accepting responsibility for the accident and now the question is reduced to “how much will he pay”. The taxi driver quickly picked up on this.

“Ok, you pay me $120 dolla!”

How are they negotiating now? Yes, old-style bargaining over money. This battle of attrition continued for about 10 minutes. So please picture 10 minutes of standing in the middle of the road, emotions running high, and with cars passing within centimetres, in the dusty, hot and humid air of South East Asia.

Eventually my friend turns silent, disengages from the dialogue, walks up to the damaged taxi, leans forward, and picks up the pieces of the side mirror. While he slowly inspects the mirror, the taxi driver continues their negotiation:

“70 dolla. You pay me 70 dolla!”

And then we all hear a *CLICK*. Was that… Could it be… Yes, as I look over I see that my friend have successfully put the side-mirror back together.

“But it is not working. You pay me $70 dolla!”
“How do you know it’s not working? Try it!”

The taxi driver reluctantly tries the electric mirror control. And voila, it’s all working and no visible scratches!

What begun as a clumsy bargaining process was resolved using masterful negotiation. My friend had snapped out of the traditional “I’m right and you’re wrong” or “I want XYZ from you” mentality, and instead removed the need to have a negotiation altogether.

In our book we named this technique preventative options – options (or solutions) that allow us to prevent the need to have particularly difficult negotiations. While our example here was quite trivial, this technique becomes a very powerful option for values-based negotiations where parties will never change their mind or accept being “wrong” (e.g. on abortion, religion, global warming, gun control, etc).