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.”

Advertisements

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!”

Relationship trumps power

One of the most common requests that I (initially) get from clients is: “Help us develop more power!” In negotiation, power refers to the ability to get (or make, or force, or coerce…) someone else to do what he or she doesn’t want to do.

When clients make this request it usually signals that the negotiation is presently not going their way. So akin to bringing your older brother as support in a kindergarten playground fight, clients hope that building power will allow them to start controlling the negotiation.

But power is the negotiation equivalent of brute force and ignorance. While it initially looks like the panacea that will resolve the situation in our favour, keen readers of this blog and our book now understand how power in negotiation causes more problems than it solves.

Instead there are much more elegant, and powerful ways to get what we want. In fact, sometimes even friendliness, kindness, love, understanding, charisma, humour and wit can disarm even the most antagonistic and power-wielding counter-parties.

There is perhaps no clearer (and more entertaining) illustration of this than when reverend Wade Watts found himself pitted against Johnny Lee Clary and the Ku Klux Klan.

After watching this clip, ask yourself the following:

  • Which party had most power?
  • Which party achieved their objective?
  • If reverend Wade Watts was able to neutralise the power of Ku Klux Klan, then what excuse can I (the reader) possibly have for resorting to using power in plain vanilla commercial negotiations?

Beware of the status negotiation

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

In my upcoming book I discuss the idea that every negotiation (and interaction!) we have is actually made up of multiple parallel negotiations.

When I ask you ”What was that last negotiation about?”, the answer you give me will probably be what we call the formal topic of the negotiation. Now, if this were the only negotiation we needed to pay attention to then life would be very easy.

But human interaction is much more complex than that. Our formal topic will be polluted by a range of covert negotiations (or competitions!) about status, perceptions, intentions, understanding, trust, rapport, fairness, values, beliefs, and so on.

So let’s today look at one of these; the status negotiation. We all want status and recognition. But we make two flawed assumptions that often make the status negotiation impossible to resolve. One assumption is that we should have most status. The other is that we assume there is only one source of status.

The pattern can look something like this:

  • Person A: “I have 20 years experience in this area, so I know what I’m talking about.” (i.e.”I’m right because of my status!” )
  • Person B: “Well I have education, so I understand this in much more detail than a simple practitioner.”
  • Person C: “I have the most senior title, so the organisation has decided that my view is most important.”
  • Person D: “Yes, but I’m much older than all of you, and have life experience that you can’t begin understand.”
  • Person E: “You are all wrong. I’m clearly the most intelligent person in the room, so my view is obviously the most important.”
  • Persons A, B, C, D in unison: “No, I’m the most intelligent person in the room!”

Do our negotiations really look like this? YES… they do! But not on the surface. All of this goes on behind the scenes. Still, the results are readily visible, and with focused attention we can pick up on the signals in time.

Each party that does not feel that their status is acknowledged will resent the others. Left unresolved, this unmet need will predictably pollute the rest of the negotiation or interaction. It is not uncommon for a failed status negotiation to cause an otherwise successful negotiation to derail.

So what can we do instead? How about we deal with those flawed assumptions! Let’s first appreciate that there are countless sources of status. The more sources we have, the more flexibility we have to let the other party also get their status needs met. We need to take responsibility for this. Because if we put all our eggs in one basket and only rely on a single source of status (e.g. our title or rank) then our ego will do everything it can to protect that source of status. And we already know that having a sensitive ego is incompatible with being a skilled influencer or negotiator.

Let’s also acknowledge that the goal is not to feel appreciated at the expense of the other party. Rather the goal is to feel sufficiently appreciated. There is no competition here, so stop competing!

Let’s try this out:

“So you (Person B) have a PhD? Fantastic! I’m sure that your education together with my (Person A) experience in this area will enable us to arrive at even better outcomes than those we could each have achieved individually!”

Now wasn’t that the easiest thing in the world…?