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How to prepare yourself for any work conversation, even the difficult ones

Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres, authors of Conversations Worth Having

Here’s a very useful little nugget I picked up from a recent episode of the Rebel HR podcast, where the guests were Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres, authors of Conversations Worth Having, which is one of the best books about Appreciative Inquiry and certainly one of the most readable.

It’s about how to have better conversations, and how to stop them from going wrong. And it’s something that takes very little time and it’s easy to do – my kind of tip!

Usefully, there’s a (slightly rough and obviously machine-generated transcript on the episode’s web page). Here’s Cheri Torres from that transcript:

So where do you start? That’s a great question. And that’s what brought us to the second edition of the book is, it’s called tuning in. And if you would just, you know, if you just learned to tune in, which is, you know, pause, take a deep breath and get curious and ask yourself before, which of those conversations, where am I, and imagine you had this imaginary line. And above the line is appreciative, you’re in a space where I value you, I value the situation, even if it’s a difficult person or difficult situation, but you want to be coming from above the line, which are affirmative conversations, conversations worth having. And if you’re below the line, you’re in that depreciate of that, that protect mode, and your conversations are going to be maybe perhaps critical or destructive, and you’re below the line. And you don’t want to be entering conversations from below the line. So just the technique of pausing taking a deep breath and getting curious and ask yourself, Where am I?

Asked about tactics to make better conversations happen, Jackie Stavros then goes on to talk about how our words can have actual impacts on the neurophysiology of the people who hear them. So if someone feels attacked, even verbally, it will tend to put them into fight-or-flight mode.

At the very least, it will light up the ‘Task Positive network‘ in their brains, making them more focused on getting what they think they want and less open to new ideas and relating to you as a human being. At worst, it produces an adrenaline dump, shutting off empathy and creative thought, and putting the worst interpretation on anything they hear you say or see you do.

We’ve all had conversations where this happened – sometimes to us, sometimes to the other person, and perhaps most likely to both participants. So you’re more likely to have worthwhile conversations if you’re aware of that metaphorical ‘line’, if you prepare yourself beforehand, and if you have some tactics for pulling the conversation back up above the line if it’s gone south.

First, preparation. You need to be aware of your own emotional state, and get yourself above the line before the conversation starts. There are two aspects that you need to pay attention to: your own physical and emotional condition, and your expectations and mental image of the other person.

1. Your own physical and emotional condition:

To have a worthwhile conversation, you need to be in a calm, centered state, not in ‘fight or flight’ mode.

As Cheri suggests in the quote above, pause and quickly check in with yourself. Are you feeling stressed, angry, flustered, or impatient?

If you are, here’s what you can do to rapidly de-stress and relax, in just a few moments: use the most effective and quickest-acting technique I know to let go of tension – the ‘physiological sigh‘.

Other rapid calming methods you can use include peripheral vision and centering.

For a conversation to be worthwhile, you need to be fully present and giving the other person 100% of your attention (they will notice, consciously or unconsciously, if you’re not). Being calm and centered will enable you to place your attention fully on the other person, rather than within yourself.

2. Your expectations and mental image of the other person

Once you’re calm, and in ‘Default’ or empathetic mode, turn your attention to how you’re relating to the other person.

If you’ve pulled your own state ‘above the line’ to a place of calm and centeredness, you will be able to regard the other person as a human being, rather than viewing them as either an obstacle or a resource on route to achieving your goal or solving your problem.

But what’s your expectation of them? If your previous experience of them (or of people of ‘that type’, however you’re categorising them) has led you to judge them as obstructive, or hostile, you’re likely (due to confirmation bias) to encounter more of the same each time you have dealings with them.

So remember that the decisions they make and the way they behave, no matter how strange they seem to you, make sense given the way they view the world. And given their ‘map of the world‘ (that inevitably contains some distortions and gaps, just like yours does, because we’re human), they’re making the best choices they can, and always have been.

Check also your intentions for the conversation: are you coming from a position of ‘advocacy‘, where the point of the conversation is to get them to do what you want, or to persuade them to change their mind so they come round to your point of view? Or are you open to the possibility that you may have something to learn from them, making a genuine learning conversation possible?

I hope these tips and questions will help you have better conversations at work.

If you want to learn how to help people have learning conversations, check out my Practical Appreciative Inquiry course that starts soon!

What are your favourite ways to get yourself ‘above the line’? Let us know in the comments.

Practical Appreciative Inquiry: Are Your Conversations Above Or Below The Line?

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