I looked around the room and could tell immediately the team wasn’t in agreement with my recommendation. I’d explained every reason I believed Shawn was the right candidate for the position; but for every reason I gave to explain why I believed he was the perfect hire for the newly created role, Aaron and Melinda each had their list of multiple objections of why he shouldn’t even be considered for employment in our company at this time. But as the conversation continued, we were all hit with a stark realization.
Not only were we in disagreement on the candidate, it became clear we were in complete opposition on the direction of the new division, too. As I continued to explain my rationale, I could feel the heat in my face rising. I was getting increasingly upset and the more frustrated I became, the more they shut down. I didn’t feel like I was being heard. They felt like I wasn’t listening to them. We were squared off with no foreseeable resolution; this meeting was going nowhere, fast. We needed strategies for successful communication.
Have you been in a similar situation? Have you ever been in a discussion where the more emphatically you try to communicate your point of view, the more the other party seems to not be listening? Do you know what that feels like? Of course you do, unless you’ve never had a disagreement. It’s frustrating, it’s maddening. But you’re not alone.
In owning my business for the past 15 years, I’ve met my fair share of challenging conversations. While working to negotiate contract rates with companies who don’t want to pay, explaining to employees why their performance is sub-par and they won’t be getting the raise they expected, and dealing with people who don’t show up for work on time, these opportunities have all been instances for me to exercise my ‘conversational growth’ muscle.
I’ll admit, in my early years of leadership I wouldn’t think twice about pulling the “because I said so” card. And, I’ll also admit, I feel tempted to sometimes even today when things get heated (although I don’t). So, instead of hanging onto the “because I said so” card like it’s my “get out of jail free” card, I’ve learned that not everyone in the world honors that card and learning strategies for successful communication in difficult situations is a key skill to hone.
Here are 7 strategies for successful communication that have worked for me:
1. Stay calm.
Let’s be honest, this one generally tends to be the hardest strategy for successful communication for me. However, it’s true that the quickest way to not be heard is to lose your temper. When you lose your temper you actually lose your power. Do you want to collaborate with the person standing across from you, red-faced from screaming at you? I know I don’t!
When in the situation and you start to feel yourself escalate, take a slow, deep breath. Count to three. Repeat. Stay calm, centered, and in control. When you remain calm and collected despite what your conversational partner says, it’ll get the point across that you’re in control.
2. Consider the intent of the other party.
The second strategy for successful communication is to consider the intent of the other party. What is the purpose of the conversation? Are you trying to determine a place to host the next meeting? Or is there a lot more on the line—like negotiating with your boss to get your next raise? I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I generally think that people aren’t difficult just for the sake of being difficult. When you take the time to reflect on the other person’s intent and consider they most likely aren’t out to get you, it seems to keep their motivation in perspective.
If possible, consider what is triggering the other person’s emotional response. Ask yourself what is making them react negatively? What is keeping the conversation stuck at a standstill? If you consider his/her needs you can potentially come to a resolution quicker than just digging your heels in the ground further.
3. State your position but get perspective from others
The third strategy for successful communication is to communicate your needs and desires, but consider the other person’s perspective, too. One of the most successful ways I’ve seen this work is with my kids. They’ll start disagreeing over something and it usually escalates pretty quickly. When I step in, the first thing I ask is, “would you be okay if she said (or did) that to you”? More often than not, that one question cues them to think of the situation from the other’s perspective.
Granted, I’ll admit it’s not always so easy, especially in a work situation. When you try to identify the perspective of the other party, ask for an honest, unbiased view from a third party. It’s highly likely that your manager, colleague, or friend would have experienced a similar situation, making them a likely candidate to help you navigate the uncertainty. Share your predicament with them and then listen to their advice. It’s probable that you’ll get some solid direction and gain clarity on next steps.
4. Be respectful
In addition to allowing the conversation to get heated, one of the quickest ways to shut down positive communication is to be hurtful and hateful. Therefore, the fourth strategy for successful communication is to be respectful to the other party. No one likes to be insulted, degraded, or treated as if they are stupid. Once that line is crossed, it’s nearly impossible to go back.
I recommend having some personal ground rules for communication, and know what they are before going into the conversation. One of the ground rules for my husband and I is that under no circumstances are we allowed to call each other names or degrade the other person. Having these rules pre-determined is crucial for healthy, respectful communication. And, when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to remember Thumper’s philosophy in the movie Bambi, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”
5. Ask for clarification
In heated discussions it’s easy for your amygdala to get hijacked and you not be able to think straight. You get into fight, flight, and freak out mode and any likelihood of rational discussion seems to fly right out the window. One of the best strategies for successful communication is to get back to communication basics 101 and ask for clarification. The simplest way to get clarification in your discussion is by saying to the other party, “I heard you say….’ and repeat back to them what you heard.
After the speaker has finished speaking, and you repeat back to them what you’ve heard, remember to ask clarifying questions for missing information. It’s incredible how many times communication blow-ups have occurred because of a simple lack of understanding. If you are getting upset and feeling like you’ve been wronged, clarifying questions can help you determine if you’re making assumptions or if you are needing further information.
6. Focus on solution, not the problem
When adversity rears its ugly head, the first thing we typically do is to focus our efforts energy, and communication on the problem. We often play the blame game repeatedly in our thoughts, and get angrier every second that we ruminate over the situation.
However, solution-focused discussions will lend themselves to quicker agreement and collaboration. The first thing you need to identify is what an appropriate solution would be for you, as well as what would appease the other party. The only way successful communication will be achieved is by knowing what would make you both feel as if a positive resolution had been reached.
7. Know your BATNA
The likelihood of every discussion ending in victory and exactly how you want it to is slim to none. But that doesn’t mean you have to walk away from every difficult conversation feeling as if you’ve lost it all, either. Identifying solid options for an acceptable resolution is always a best practice. That is where your BATNA comes in.
Your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) is your backup plan for a solution—your plan B (or C, or D, etc.). Say, for example, your boss is providing you feedback in your yearly review and said you did a stellar job. Because of the feedback, you were expecting a significant raise; however, because of cutbacks and spending freezes your pay remained the same. What would be your next best solution—what’s your best alternative to a raise? Could you negotiate increased paid time off, have the company pay for the training you’ve been wanting, or allow you flex time? Identify other solutions that would be alternatives to your first choice.
Communication breakdowns are bound to happen at some point. As long as people continue to interact, there will ongoing opportunities to exercise your “conversational growth muscles.” As a result, try these seven strategies for successful communication the next time you are in a situation that needs some help reaching a resolution.