How to Be Genuine During a Tough Conversation

New skills often feel awkward at first, and the last thing you need is awkwardness when you’re trying to be your very best. I do have a few tips that might help.

Sense and Respond

First, walk away from the formula. Instead of using the skills as a series of sequential steps, use the process as a map. Listen to the other person, ask yourself where you are on the map, and then respond. This sense-and-respond process will feel more natural for you and for the other person because it puts a greater emphasis on listening. It makes you more responsive to what others say, and it makes your responses more brief.

Here’s an example. Suppose you begin with Describe the Gap. State the facts about what you expected and what you observed, and then pause to listen. As you are listening, ask yourself where you are on the map: “Do they understand and agree with what I expected?” “Do they agree with what I observed?” “Are they telling themselves a different story about the gap?” and “Are they feeling unsafe?” Depending on what you hear, you will respond with another skill.

For example, if they don’t agree with the expectation, you will review the facts. If they are telling themselves a different story about the gap, you will use CPR. If they appear to be feeling unsafe, you will use a contrasting statement or another skill to restore safety.

Get Your Heart Right

We used to try to teach fairly sophisticated acting skills, such as how to look concerned, how to appear nonthreatening, and the like. In fact, one of my side jobs in graduate school was with a legal firm, teaching witnesses how to appear less shifty-eyed under cross-examination. But that’s a whole different life.

What we learned is that if we get our heart right, all the subtle nonverbal cues we send out become consistent with our message, and we become natural. However, if we don’t get our heart right, then few of us are good enough actors to appear to be anything but awkward, unnatural, and insincere. So, we no longer try to turn ourselves into actors. Instead, we change our hearts. I’ll remind you of a couple of mental skills for getting your heart right.

First, use the Start With Heart skills. Ask yourself what you really want long term—for yourself, for the other person, and for the relationship. Let that long-term goal be your North Star. It should guide your conversation and keep you on track.

Second, use the Master My Story skills. Remember, when we feel frustrated or angry, it’s because we’ve drawn an ugly conclusion about the other person. We are telling ourselves an ugly story. Change your emotions by interrogating your story. Here are three questions I use to interrogate ugly stories: a) “Do I really have all the facts I need to be certain my story is accurate?” b) “Is there any other more positive story that would fit this same set of facts?” and c) “Why might a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?” Asking myself these questions changes my emotions by opening my mind to new and different stories.

Don’t worry too much. Once you have your heart right, don’t worry too much about the rest. People focus on your heart, not your head; they focus on your motivations and intentions, not your facts, logic, and argument. Others may see that you are frustrated or angry with them, but they will also see you are trying to control your anger, and that you respect and care about them. And that’s a good message to send.

Stop sooner and more often to listen. At VitalSmarts, we’ve spent a lot of time studying opinion leaders—people who are especially respected by their peers. However, there is another line of research—people who study “low self-monitors.”

Here are two hallmarks of being a low self-monitor: a) If you think of a conversation as taking turns, low self-monitors don’t give you your turn. They monopolise conversations. b) Once you do get a chance to speak, low self-monitors don’t sense and respond. They don’t change course based on what you’ve said. For example, if you say, “I’ve already heard that joke,” prepare yourself, because you are about to hear it again.

What we’ve learned is that we are all likely to make these two errors when we’re in a crucial conversation. We want to be at our best, but we act like a low self-monitor. Can you see why? We tend to focus on ourselves and on what we’re trying to say, and we stop focusing on the other person. The trick to avoiding this trap is to stop and get the other person to respond sooner and more often.

Practice and make the skills your own. My final tip is to find your own words and phrases. Integrate the skills into your everyday conversational style. Set aside some places and times when you will look for chances to use a skill here and a tool there—not the whole process but pieces of the process. Practice the pieces and make them your own. You’ll find the process becomes a part of yourself.

Learn the skills to master tough conversations like an expert with our globally known Crucial Conversations training.

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