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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Power and prevention in negotiation

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

One of the beautiful things with negotiation and influence is that many insights are transferrable and just as applicable in commercial, hostage, and romantic relationship negotiations. And while professional negotiators get excited about the complex, high stakes, international and crisis negotiations, most of us relate better to examples of everyday negotiations. So let me share one.

At the time of posting this entry in the blog, I have connected with 51 negotiators (professional and academics) worldwide. Recently one of the very experienced old school negotiators shared the following tip with me on the importance of balancing power in negotiations.

As an example, when you go to the dentist, the first thing you need to do is to grab him by the ba**s, and then calmly say: “We won’t hurt each other, will we?”

Power negotiation is certainly a valid approach to negotiation, and it is very common in business today. But for some reason it doesn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it is because my dentist is a woman. Or perhaps it is because my dentist is such a kind and caring individual and I know she has my wellbeing in mind?

There is also something else. If we simply frame the negotiation around how much pain will be associated with fixing our ailing tooth, then we don’t actually have much scope to manoeuvre in the negotiation. At one extreme tooth will be fixed and it will be painful. At the other extreme the tooth won’t be fixed. No win/win outcome in sight.

But if we instead take a systems view of the negotiation, then we realize our tooth is aching because we haven’t taken care of it properly. The current situation was thus completely avoidable (i.e. preventable)! By instead viewing our dentist as a collaborator, she can help us ensure that our teeth stay healthy, and every visit will be short and painless.

So at the end of today’s visit I asked her the same question I ask after every visit: “From what you’ve seen today, what are the two specific things that you recommend I change (e.g. diet, behaviour) to ensure that we continue having these pain free visits every 6 months?”

Prevention is much cheaper, easier, more powerful and less painul than intervention. It is also one of the reasons why “professional negotiator”, from one perspective, is one of the most unrewarding jobs on the planet ☺ If we do our job well then the problems never occur, and people don’t realize the disaster we saved them from.