Mark always prided himself as an exceptional negotiator and communicator, yet during a recent performance review with an employee, he was accused of reneging on a promotion offered during a conversation several months prior. Mark recalled the initial discussion, however both parties had a different understanding regarding the timeline for the promotion to take effect. His employee requested that a union representative also attend the performance review and Mark was informed in advance that a grievance would be filed should the matter remain unresolved.
Although Mark understood the ramifications, he was nonetheless surprised by the turn of events. He enjoyed amicable relationships with all staff and union delegates, and was renowned as a manager who treated each team member fairly. Therefore, in order to respond effectively to the concern, he needed to draw upon his greatest strength: maintaining an open-minded approach.
How often do we find ourselves in situations where we are certain that our version of a past conversation is correct? Do we assume that we have achieved agreement and discover later that uncertainty lingers? And when we are challenged to clarify the specifics, do we experience discomfort when the tone of the discussion turns sour, or worse, the relationship becomes strained or irreparable?
In the example above, both parties were convinced that their respective facts regarding the previous discussion were accurate. In order to successfully manage misunderstandings, the key is to prepare…and to ask the right questions.
Ask more, tell less
Effective communication is a learned skill. When the potential for conflict exists or another party raises concerns that take us by surprise, the notion of remaining objective may elude us, as we often default to a combative response, or prefer to avoid the situation all together. Rather, we can be far more productive by enhancing our understanding of the other individual’s position prior to explaining our own. We begin by asking engaging, open-ended questions. For example: “I’ve been reflecting on our conversation regarding the promotion that we discussed several months ago and want to ensure I understand your thoughts. What do you remember about our discussion?”
Listen before responding
Silent has the same letters as listen. Adopting an unhurried, thoughtful approach to your communication involves the art of earnestly listening to others. Never underestimate the power of silence during a conversation. A pause often yields unexpected, positive outcomes. In addition to giving yourself room to breathe, you create new opportunities for your question to be reflected upon and for you to truly listen to the other party’s answer.
Avoid questions that imply judgment
In order to gain understanding, it is important to ask questions that are less likely to put the other party on the defensive. For example, asking: “Why do you think I reneged on a promise to promote you?” may cause further tension, because “why” can imply blame and “you” in this context can be interpreted as an accusation. Instead, focus on paying attention to the other person’s perspective, i.e. “tell me more about your concerns regarding our discussion about a promotion.” The key is to first acknowledge, even if you don’t agree.
Have a dialogue rather than a monologue
You can argue your point, or you can acknowledge differences. By allowing the disparity to exist, you demonstrate your capacity for open-mindedness, even though another individual’s account of the facts may not resemble yours. Giving consideration to different perspectives can serve you well. By asking rapport – building questions you are engaging in a conversation, rather than enforcing your point of view.
We cannot control another person’s response. However, we can control our own. Outstanding communication skills can be learned, and have greater potential to impact the direction of a conversation. By earnestly practicing the art of asking questions, you will likely find that you are better equipped to clarify misconceptions, heighten understanding and avert confusion. Most importantly, you will be ideally positioned to create opportunities for finding solutions or common ground that may not have otherwise been possible.
Michelle Ray (@michelleraycsp) is a Vancouver-based business keynote speaker, leadership expert, author and founder of the Lead Yourself First Institute .