It is amazing how quickly something said in a conversation can take the conversation south, or leave one or both parties thinking that they had not had a worthwhile dialogue. This is even more true today in the politically charged and divisive day in which we live. Productive conversations are a key to relational and business success, so how do we increase the possibility of healthy conversations?
I believe that there are four keys to productive conversations.
One: Rather than leading with pronouncements, lead with questions. Questions elicit dialogue and conversation while pronouncements often lead to misunderstanding and can easily shut down conversations. In the worst case, they create unnecessary conflict.
I might have disappointment with a staff member and need to have a conversation around the issue that disappointed me. If I lead with a pronouncement of my disappointment I will probably be met with defensiveness. However, if I start by asking a few questions, I will not only understand better why something happened (or didn't) but will open up an opportunity to talk candidly about it. The best conversations are driven by questions and inquisitiveness rather than pronouncements or conclusions. I might even discover that what I thought happened had reasons that I had no idea of.
Two: Listen!!!! We talk too much and listen too little. Understanding comes when we actively listen to others. The more we listen to others the more clues we have to what they are actually thinking or saying. When I have practiced the discipline of listening I have been thankful that I did because my perception of what was real and what was actually real had been flawed. Understanding and empathy only take place when we listen and ask good questions. It changes the nature of the conversation completely.
Three: Choose a posture of humility rather than one of expertise or "I know the answers." Even if you do know the answers, a posture of humility will allow your input to be heard. If we come across as the expert who has the answers, the conversation stops. There is nowhere to go. And, the best answers are usually found in dialogue rather than in our own heads. I am an expert in almost nothing but in the company of others I can help find answers to problems and situations. Narcissistic people make pronouncements, don't listen and let people know they have the answers. All these behaviors shut down conversation rather than facilitate it.
Four: Pay great attention to the tone, body language, reactions and emotional feedback from the individual you are talking to. Self awareness is a key to good Emotional Intelligence and we get ourselves in trouble when we are unaware of the reaction of the one we are talking with. Being aware of their reactions can help us have a more effective conversation. If what we are saying is being met with resistance, we want to be aware and potentially modify our approach.
Without these four practices, it is easy to approach conversations with only our assumptions. Those assumptions are often deeply flawed but they need not be hinderance to the dialogue if we will pay attention to these practices. They give dignity to those we are talking to and understanding to us.