Having a Difficult Conversation? First, Fill the Pool of Shared Meaning

Every successful leader must learn how to effectively engage in difficult conversations. These “crucial conversations” — one of our favorite books is Crucial Conversations, written by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Swizler — address the tough topics that are required to lead an organization and position a business to thrive. To start at the beginning, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Am I Having a Crucial Conversation?”

Kate needed to have a crucial conversation with Alex about a promotion — the issue being that Alex was not getting it. Kate wanted to make sure that Alex knew he was truly valued and that he was considered a rising star at the company. Kate really did not want to lose Alex. This was important, Kate was aware that Alex believed he deserved the promotion, and emotions would certainly be running high.

There are a variety of steps and numerous tactics that are proven to work, and help all parties navigate a difficult conversation. However, all the strategies and all the effort will be for naught if the individuals engaged in a tough conversation do not have a “pool of shared meaning” — a place where open, honest dialogue can create a foundational understanding of each other’s perspectives.

To extend the metaphor, the pool’s liner — what keeps all the meaning in the pool is trust. For more about trust, read “Thirteen behaviors of a High Trust Leader” and “I’d Rather Work with Someone I Trust: Teams, Performance, and Trust”. To achieve her goals, it was vital to Kate that there be trust between her and Alex, and that they both be able to share their viewpoints and their knowledge in a shared pool.

What is the Pool of Shared Meaning? How do I Fill it?

Consider how most of us have a difficult conversation. One person says what they think, and tries to convince the other person that they are right. The other person then says what they think — typically the opposite — and tries to convince them that they are right. I stay on my side; you stay on yours, in opposition to each other.

Instead, we need a neutral place (pool) where where we can both put in information — then we both stand metaphorically on the same side of the pool to pull things out again. To fill the pool, we must be willing to share our side without trying to convince, and we must be CURIOUS about the other side to truly understand, and ask them to offer their perspective.

When we talk about a “dialogue” — a meaningful conversation — we mean the open, honest and respectful free flow of information, ideas, perspectives, and meaning between people. Leaders who are skilled in having productive, crucial conversations find a way to get all the relevant information from others and from themselves into the open, and into the pool.

They fill the pool by making it safe for everyone to add their meaning. Trust creates safety, and safety means that a person can speak honestly, candidly, and sincerely about their concerns, their perspectives, their goals and objectives, and the context about what’s going on and why they think things are where they are. In a healthy, neutral pool of shared meaning, people use similar language and they are working to understand each other’s perspectives (while not necessarily agreeing).

Filling the pool improves the quality of decisions and Kate wanted dialogue that would add to the pool. Kate was able to share with Alex the nuances of the decision, the company’s strong, positive view of Alex, what new opportunities may be on the horizon, and offered a suggestion for professional development. Alex was able to express his frustration and concerns about being passed over, and his confusion about why he fell short.

If you want to become effective at dialogue, you must learn to create conditions in yourself and others that make positive, productive dialogue the path of least resistance — and that’s a robust pool of shared meaning.

Without the pool, Kate may have employed techniques for handling difficult conversations, but Alex would probably have been reluctant to share his true concerns, shut himself off, and quietly started a new job search.

So fill the pool BEFORE you jump off the deep end!

To learn more about communication skills, navigating difficult conversations, and building leadership skills for yourself and your organization, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.