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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Assume agreement

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

“What? Alright Filip… I buy the other stuff you posted here, but assume agreement…? Isn’t that dangerous? What if we at the end of the negotiation believe we have agreement and the other party believes they agreed to something completely different? Couldn’t that spell disaster?”

Yes. Your concerns are legitimate. I agree. (And in a future blog I’ll explain why negotiators frame their questions differently. Another time!) 

At the end of the negotiation we certainly wish to ensure that all parties involved leave with the same understanding of what we have agreed to.

But until we reach this point in the negotiation we are dramatically more likely to make the opposite mistake; to assume disagreement when there is none. This assumption has the unfortunate property of triggering a destructive negotiation pattern that we are all guilty of.

Once we assume that our opinions are incompatible we become preoccupied with supporting our position in order to win. Insights from psychology explain that we lose objectivity at this point, and effectively try to manufacture or manipulate available evidence to support the view we already have. In the process we pollute the interaction with assumptions, accusations, judgements and anything else that we can find to make us feel like winners and make the other side look like losers.

So what can we do instead? Well, instead if assuming disagreement, negotiators assume misunderstanding. Rather than assuming that our opinions are incompatible, we assume that we simply haven’t yet understood out how they are compatible. Additionally, we fight the (delicious) temptation to blame the other party for not understanding us. Rather we assume that we don’t understand each other. The process we chose to follow is one of letting all parties clarify their opinion, and confirm that they understand the opinion of others.

It helps create a healthy mindset for negotiation to assume… no…. to believe that this process can always lead to agreement.