Conversation Breakdowns

by Marc Rounsaville on March 6, 2012

Last week I asked a colleague for an opinion on a strategy document I was writing. I had spent a lot of time on it, and I wanted to be “done”. So when she offered her thoughts I started pushing back. Right up until the point she said, “Why are you being so defensive? I thought you wanted some help?”

That stopped me short. I apologized and began to actually listen; I took some of the advice, clarified why some of the recommendations would not work and completed a much-improved plan. Reflection on this exchange reminded me of a couple of communication breakdowns, which can affect all of us.

The first breakdown is advocacy masquerading as inquiry. I wasn’t really looking for feedback or a critique. I just wanted to be told how great my strategic plan was. Sometimes we hide advocacy like this. “This strategic plan is pretty good, right?” Looks and feels like a question but it really advocating for a particular position or viewpoint.

What I asked for and what I wanted were quite different. “Could you look this over and tell me what you think? This request was a subtler break than using “right?” at the end of a sentence. Nevertheless I was still advocating and it was still a conversation break.

The second breakdown is one known as move / oppose. This type of communication frequently precedes arguments. When my friend asked, ‘Why are you being so defensive?” my response was “I’m not defensive.” This led to “Yes you are!” I was smart enough to stop right there but it is easy to see how things can escalate.

This was a very short conversation, not a long exchange and it took place between two people that are usually quite aware and also know and trust one another. Imagine your conversations with associates, clients or others whom you may not know very well. Or what about those conversations with people you know and don’t trust so much? We talk all the time, but how often do we communicate? And how many times do our interactions leave us less than satisfied with the results?

Improving listening skills can improve our ability to defend against communication breaks. Listen to both sides of the conversation. Turn off the distractions. Be honest with yourself as to what you want from the interaction. Maybe even script your questions or play out the conversation in your head.

When I asked for feedback on the strategic plan I should have been specific about what I wanted. The conversation would have gone much differently if I had started it like this. “I want you to give me some feedback on this plan, but I have to say that I have really put a lot of time in and I just want a cursory look. I am sure it needs more work but I am a little stuck and a lot tired and just want to know if I am headed in the right direction.”

Giving this kind of detail as to where I was emotionally and what type and kind of feedback I needed sets the stage for a much more effective interaction.

This conversation set up would also allow for my colleague to “opt out”. She could have easily come back to me and said, “You know I am a perfectionist and it is really hard for me to ignore grammar and syntax errors.”

This type of conversation is not easy to do. We have all been trained and have developed a mental muscle memory that is quite different. This looks like it takes a lot of energy to set up and to keep on track and we may not want to put the energy into the conversation.  Just think for a minute how much energy is wasted when we don’t engage in effective communication.

When have your communications broken down?

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