Communication obviously plays a pivotal role in fostering these types of bonds. And we all can relate to situations where communication has broken down. Perhaps it’s the nasty email you get right before bed that doesn’t sound at all like the voice of the person who’s writing it. Perhaps it’s the parent sitting across from you for the umpteenth time who you can’t seem to say the right thing to. Perhaps it’s the conversation that you have to have with a colleague that you know is not going to be received well. I believe that in all of these situations there are simple tips that can help to make these conversations better. It’s important to note that I didn’t say “easier” because I think these types of conversations only get easier with experience and practice. However, there are some tried and true tactics that can lead to smoother conversations even in the midst of contention.
Face to Face
This one I have definitely learned the hard way. Early in my career I would choose to send an email regarding a contentious issue rather than pick up the phone or set up a meeting. Too often this exacerbated an issue that could have been more easily solved face to face. Earlier I alluded to receiving an email not in the voice of the person sending it. This is a two way street – you as a leader rarely speak with your true voice via email either. When I receive a nasty email my first response now is to pick up the phone and set up a meeting. The very act of meeting face to face often softens the tone. It is far too easy to lose the human voice in an email and I’ve often heard senders say “I wish I hadn’t sent that”, or “I was afraid it might be read that way”. Do yourself a favour and do what’s harder in the short but easier in the long: pick up the phone and set up a face to face meeting.
Too often I have tried to rule the conversation. I have learned that the most effective way to start a meeting is to simply say something to the effect of “tell me what’s going on”. As leaders we often have heard every side of the story prior to the meeting, but the very act of allowing the voice of the other to be heard coupled with the posture that you’re humble enough to admit that what is going to be spoken is truth, can help to difuse some of the tension of the initial combustible moments.
Susan Scott says in Fierce Conversations that “there is so much more to listen to than words. Listen to the whole person” (p.103). Listening to the whole person means using your eyes as well as your ears. It is important to maintain eye contact in a friendly and collegial way. Too much eye contact is, of course, authoritarian, but it is integral to be seeing what the other person’s eyes are ‘saying’ and watching for important body language. This is also reciprocal: it is important that they are able to see what your eyes and body are saying as well.
Body language plays an important role in effective conversations because it can help us to interpret the intentions of others and can help others to interpret our intentions. The methods outlined here can seem manipulative, they should be seen rather as ways to be aware of our physical selves during conversations in order to hear others more effectively and to help those with whom we are conversing to be comfortable and to ‘feel’ our message well.
1. How you Sit
Kevin Dutton in Split Second Persuasion” tells a story about a person who was able to diffuse tense situations by sitting on his hands. It may seem silly, but the way we situate ourselves physically during a conversation can have fairly significant effects. Dutton suggest that if possible we position our chairs a little lower than those to whom we are talking and to and to sit on our hands. The goal here is to put yourself in a posture of listening. If you are lower than the other person, their stature now exceeds yours. If you are sitting on your hands, this is a non-verbal indication of relinquishing power. Both of these are powerful ways to influence positive and peaceful conversations. Try it.
2. Strategic Mimicry
Strategic mimicry, says Daniel Pink, is a sign of trust. Pink cites a number of studies that have shown that when the listener strategically mimics the physical actions of others, more deals are done and the speaker feels more positively about the listener. It may seem silly but it has been shown to be effective. When your conversant crosses his or her arms, wait a few moments and cross yours arms. If he/she sits up straighter, wait a few moments and sit up straighter.
3. Touching Arms
Both Dutton and Pink recommend light physical touch. This is a tricky one because you must feel comfortable doing it or else you risk coming across as creepy. I always greet people prior to a conversation with a hearty handshake and either a gentle opposite hand on the back of their shaking hand, or a light pat on the shoulder. It is possible that this lends to a feeling of trust and gentleness.
These tips, of course, only scratch the surface. However, in a position with so much depending on the leader’s ability to foster good relationships, I believe it is important to practice being good at peaceful conversations. Some of this may come naturally, but some of it also comes through trial and error. Next time you face a potentiality volatile situation, arrange a face-to-face meeting, listen before you speak, and make sure your body language reflects your intention.
Dutton, K. (2011). Split-second persuasion: the ancient art and new science of changing minds. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007).The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Pink, D. H. (2012). To sell is human: the surprising truth about moving others. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Scott, S. (2002). Fierce conversations: achieving success at work & in life, one conversation at a time. New York, N.Y.: Viking.