It’s Not What You Said, It’s How You Said It

When we defend our literal words, we know our intentions aren’t always the best.

It’s often not the content of the conversations that typically derails a crucial conversation. Most crucial conversations go awry because people feel the words suggest a malicious intent. Even a basic “Good morning” can be interpreted in a negative way. And when people detect negative intentions, they don’t feel safe.

One of the first conditions of safety is mutual purpose (or shared purpose). We need to care about the same thing. Mutual purpose tells the other person that you’re working towards a common objective in the conversation. It tells them you care about their dreams, goals, aspirations, and values. And, you think they care about yours.

We call mutual purpose the “entrance condition” to dialogue. If I think we have mutual purpose, I will start a conversation. Once you find a shared purpose, you have a good reason and a healthy climate for talking.

When Mutual Purpose Is Missing

If there’s a problem in a conversation, how do I know if it’s related to mutual purpose?

Well, it’s easy to spot. When we find ourselves in crossed purposes, we end up in debate. We start digging in or giving in. There are hidden agendas, accusations, and defensiveness. People start to force their opinions into the pool of shared meaning when they don’t feel safe.

When they feel we’re trying to win, they try to win.

When you notice these red flags, it’s time to stop and ask yourself two crucial questions to determine if safety is at risk due to mutual purpose.

  1. Do others believe that I care about what’s important to them in this conversation?
  2. Do they trust my motives?

When purpose goes awry, we need to go back to VitalSmart’s concept of Start with Heart. We need to get our heart right before we can create a shared purpose. We need to move from “What do I really want?” to “What do WE really want?”

Mutual purpose isn’t a skill. If you truly want to succeed at crucial conversations, you have to genuinely care about what’s important to other people.  There has to be mutual purpose. It’s obvious when you try to compel and push your opinions — dialogue ceases and safety breaks down. You end up with silence and violence.

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