"This is ridiculous."
"Do you even understand what's going on here?"
"You are hijacking this meeting"
"You're being unreasonable."
Sound familiar? Maybe too familiar. Maybe it was with a co-worker, a family member, or you. Maybe it was about a deliverable, an objective, or... politics. Breakdowns in communication are common, and unfortunately, the skills to handle the situation are not. In this week's post, I'm going to focus on a practical approach you can take when conversations breakdown. These tactics are written for a professional setting but can be applied to most scenarios.
The problem with communication is the illusion that it happened.
When I'm facing a difficult conversation, I like to remember that the other person likely sees me as the unreasonable party. When I realize this, I use it as a trigger to change my behavior from a persuasive tone to a curious tone - and then dig into the real problem: The gap in our communication.
What are you arguing for? Why does it matter to you?
My first priority is understanding their motivation. Interestingly, even though the conclusions we reach can be on completely different ends of the spectrum, our initial goals are likely to be more similar than we realize. We both want the work to be fairly distributed. We both want a secure future for our children. We both want the project to succeed.
Knowing this helps us listen in good faith. If you realize you are discussing different things and need to table a portion of the discussion for a different time, politely recognize their point of view and clarify the bounds of the current discussion.
How much does it matter to you? Is there something that matters more?
We all know that co-worker. The one who argues just for the sake of arguing. Sometimes, to cut through the bullshit, it's as simple as asking how much it matters to them. You'd be surprised how often people will argue until they are blue in the face about things that they hardly care about. To ask "how much it matters", describe the hypothetical result of the discussion and ask how much they would be impacted. Then, listen to their answers. 9 out of 10 times they will describe a much larger and ambiguous problem they feel is being left unaddressed. Use this as an opportunity to refocus on the decision you are trying to make.
What would it take to change your mind?
Sometimes, we'd be better off not having an argument at all. There are two types of situations where this commonly occurs. In the first, the individual doesn't actually need anything to change, they just need to be heard. They just want others to understand their grievances and to clear. It's a healthy practice in the right environment, but mid-meeting is rarely the right place.
The second situation is toxic and occurs when it is impossible to changes someone's mind, regardless of any reason or information. When all options to diffuse a situation are exhausted, ask what it would take to change their mind. By asking this question, you frame the discussion around what's needed to make a decision. Then, you can then decide if more information is needed and how you could obtain it. Another trick is to reverse the framing of this question and explain to what it would take for the other party to change your mind. It's a simple step and goes a long way towards establishing good faith. If their answer is "nothing can change my mind", then it's not worth arguing a longer. It's time to move on.
So, the next time that you realize that you're about to get into a heated argument with your uncle about politics, realizing beforehand that there is nothing you can say that will change his mind can save you a lot of time and stress.