Answering YOUR Questions about brave, honest conversations: Edition #1

I get asked a lot of tough questions in my work. People weren’t born knowing how to have brave, honest conversations and it can be really scary, intimidating and anxiety producing to have a tough conversation with a partner, a colleague or a large group of people talking about an important issue.

In this new monthly series I’m going to tackle some of these tough questions. Every month I will address new questions that YOU send me. So if you’ve got a challenge, struggle or hope about brave, honest conversations send me your questions and I’ll put them in a future edition.

The questions this month focus on brave, honest conversations with large groups of people.

QUESTION #1: How do you strategically turn the conversation around in the middle of an outrage situation?

This question is really asking about the moment I call “the shift”, where everything changes and moves from high emotion and high arousal to a pause, a breath of opportunity for the interaction to be something different.

First tip: you need to start watching for that shift moment so you can see it. Start going to public meetings and observing interactions, act like an observer in your staff meetings, watch in workshops for the moments where things change. Build your muscles of observation and awareness so you can see this shift. It’s where the anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety slow down and pause for just a moment. It looks different in different situations, but I know what it feels like — I can feel it in my body like when you come up for air after you’ve been underwater. It only lasts for an instant but its powerful. That’s the moment you want to see so you can step right into it and intervene.

Second tip: know what you are trying to achieve. You are trying to work WITH the person who is outraged or highly emotional to be there with them so they can get to the heart of the issue, and hopefully find some resolution. Know what you are in service to — if you are in service to them in that moment then they will feel it. If you are trying to get them to calm down so you can move on to your agenda or you can have your turn to talk they will feel that too, and will likely feel manipulated and be more emotional. Practice being present and being there for someone else. Practice it with your family, friends, work colleagues. The more you practice, the more it becomes second nature.

Third tip: Use some of your facilitation skills when you see the shift so you can step in, in service to the person or group you are working with. Try asking powerful questions that start to elicit values and start to promote responsibility and ownership. Ask questions like:

  • What concerns you about that?
  • What is most important to you?
  • How have you been affected by this situation?
  • What do you hope will happen?
  • How would you solve this challenge?
  • What do you think others who are not here today would say about this issue?
  • How do we address X (your concern) and also Y (your neighbour’s different concern)?

Try using silence and staying with the conversation until it moves into a breath, creating a pause for the impact of what has been said and felt to be registered. For example, when I was facilitating a large public forum about impacts of school closures a man stood up from the crowd and in an emotional voice said, “I’m a stay-at-home Dad of four children, two of whom have special needs. If our local school closes I don’t know what I will do.” I stood in that moment after he said this, with 200 people listening into the space, and held the silence of that impact. I held it for 30 seconds or more. Then I said, “Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for bringing your concerns and needs to this room so we can talk about it.” I let the silence hold for another few seconds to see if he needed to say anything else, then I moved on so we could talk about his impacts, and other’s too.

Try using physical movement to generate a shift from high arousal to logic and reasoning and ask the person to move to a flip chart, sit at a table, go look at a board, take a walk with you to talk more. Design a conversation where people physically move and talk together. Physical movement helps set a pause button in the brain, and can create a small shift in the intensity of the interaction. For example, in a recent series of sessions I facilitated for a provincial organization on a high conflict issue, we held workshops where we knew the tension would rise to a boiling point mid-session, where people who were worried, concerned or angry would need to let their feelings out. In that moment we designed an exercise where people moved around the room in a series of short, intense conversations with different partners about the different perspectives held in the organization on that tough issue. The act of talking about exact quotes and perspectives they had been afraid to voice and physically moving around the room while they talked released enormous tension and created an environment of alignment where people saw each other as humans rather than adversaries.

QUESTION #2: How to come across empathetically without using cliches or sounding unauthentic?

I once had client ask me when would we start using empathy as a strategy to defuse conflict. To be clear, empathy isn’t a strategy. It must be real, genuine and sincere for it to be felt and effective in an emotional situation. If you aren’t really being empathetic, it isn’t really going to be felt. That’s the first tipbe genuine, sincere and fully present with empathy for someone else who is in an emotional place. There are no tricks or gimmicks to empathy, but it is a practice that you can get better at the more you do it. It is both a mindset and a series of actions / behviours.

  • Listen Deeply
  • Suspend judgment
  • Practice curiosity
  • Try on the other view
  • Stay mindful, present and attentive

There is a great article here at the Greater Good Magazine about the habits of highly empathetic people with some more tips and a quiz to determine how empathetic you are. Empathy builds trust, promotes open communication and builds relationship. As a result, it defuses conflict and de-escalates a tense situation.

Second tip: Practice what you will say so it comes out in your own words and feels natural. I can give you what I would say so it sounds authentic to me, but you need to practice it in your own words. For example, I might say, “I’m going to ask you to speak for yourself, about how YOU have been impacted. Others can speak for themselves.” when people start saying “everyone thinks this” or “we all know.” Would you say it like that, in the same tone I would use? I might intervene when one person is loudly monopolizing the conversation and gently say, “You share some really passionate and important points. I want us to all learn together about this issue. Let’s hear from a couple other people too.”Would you say it like that? Maybe not. But you won’t know what you will really say until you practice and role play so you can get the words and tone into your bones. I know that no one likes role playing, but it really works.

Third tip: Allow yourself to be a little vulnerable. Being part of Brave, Honest Conversations is not easy or for the faint of heart. If things are not going well, or you are lost and don’t know what to do then own that situation and acknowledge it. For example, early in my career I was facilitating a workshop with a group of elected officials and things got heated between them. I didn’t see the warning signs, or know how to intervene and one of them got angry, stood up and shoved his chair back so it fell over and walked out, slamming the door behind him. I was shocked, and felt like a huge failure. Without thinking about it, I said “That’s not how I thought things would go.” It broke the tension, everyone chuckled nervously and it gave me a chance to collect myself and say, “How are you feeling? How do you want to regroup? What should we do next?” because I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t going to pretend that I did. We created a plan for moving ahead, and I checked in with the departing participant a bit later. Be real and human if you want to have a real, human conversations. You don’t have to get it perfect, you just need to try, and try again.

Stay tuned for Answers to your Questions, Edition #2 in February.

In the meantime, if you have questions for me to answer about Brave, Honest Conversations post them on Linkedin or my Facebook page or add them to this blog as a comment.

Let’s build a world where people have Brave, Honest Conversations in their lives, organizations and communities so we can solve the problems we face, together.


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