“It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!”
Most of us have heard this from someone! And even 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
So, 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.
My (Almost) Ruined Vacation
Mutual purpose matters in all types of relationships — work, family, friends, and even employees at the places you do business. I experienced it on vacation!
Islamorada in the Florida Keys is my favourite getaway. I stay at a pristine resort with 12 houses nestled in a grove of about 600 coconut palms. It’s as close to paradise as you’ll find in the US. When my partner and I were there after Christmas, we decided we wanted to invite my sister’s family to join us. She agreed, so while I was there, I went to the office to book the trip. We set the date for the first week of November.
Before we left, I went back to the office and double-checked, “Saundra, are we set for the first week of November?”
“Yes! I’ve got you down!”
Six months before a trip, you’re supposed to get a notification for a deposit. But, that time came and went and I received nothing.
So I called and asked, “Saundra, do you need a deposit?”
“For the first week of November?”
“I don’t have you down.”
“Oh yes, you do! We talked multiple times when I was there!”
She said, “The entire resort is booked for a wedding.”
“I have the first week of November.”
“Umm…Let me talk to the manager.”
I hung up. We were at an impasse. I wanted what I had been promised, but that wasn’t being offered. I was angry.
Using CRIB Skills to Find Mutual Purpose
What do we do in these moments? How do we navigate a debate that comes from a clear lack of mutual purpose? It’s more than a misunderstanding.
When mutual purpose is at risk, first you need to step out of the pool of shared meaning. Remove yourself from the content, and call a timeout. Realise that you’re at an impasse. Then, use these four skills to re-create mutual purpose.
1. Commit to seek mutual purpose
See if the other person will talk about something you agree on. Ask a simple question like, “Can we take a moment and see if we can find something that we can both agree on?” Hopefully, the other person is reasonable. Rational people will say yes.
2. Recognise the purpose behind the strategy
Once you have their commitment, prioritise purpose over strategy. If you think about purpose as what I want, strategy is how I get there. But often we get so bogged down in strategy, we forget our purpose.
3. Invent a Mutual Purpose
If there’s not already a mutual purpose, come up with one. What will bring success to both parties?
4. Brainstorm Mutual Purposes
Ask for input. What purposes does the other person see as mutually beneficial?
Think back to my Florida Keys story. After I calmed down, I thought, “What was my purpose and strategy?” My purpose was to spend time with my sister and brother-in-law in the Florida Keys. My strategy was the first week of November. I could have argued about strategy, but I gave priority to the purpose: to enjoy a week with my sister in my favourite vacation spot.
So, I called Saundra back and asked, “Do you have the week before available?”
She said, “Yes! Thank you so much. This wedding group has been really hard to work with.”
The beauty and power of these skills is that we both won! There was no compromise. When we use the CRIB skills to create mutual purpose, we create win-win situations.
What if you could hardwire these skills? What if creating mutual purpose was as automatic as buckling your seatbelt? You’d have less conflict, less stress, more collaboration, and more respect. Genuinely striving towards a mutual purpose in our interactions makes all the difference.