Starting a Conversation That Matters

Many of us in Canada start a conversation fairly innocuously. We say something like: “How are you?” Then the other replies: “Good,” or “I’m fine.” This is a common exchange, no matter how the person responding is really doing. The ritual doesn’t really reveal much about how anyone is doing, unless we ask or offer more information.

In day-to-day chatter and small talk, the consequences of this kind of beginning to a conversation does not really matter. But, to be a leader in conflict, how you start a conversation really matters. With conflict, conscious beginnings are important. Research by marriage therapists John and Julie Gottman indicate that how a conversation begins predicts how the interaction will end nine times out of ten. As you’ve probably noticed yourself, beginnings are important, whether that’s for a conversation, a meeting or any group gathering.

When a difficult conversation is weighing on our minds, we could start one mindlessly or with harsh words or tone, conveying: “I’m upset and you are the cause of the problem.” This way of starting sets up the conversation to be tense and creativity withers fast. Instead, we need to consciously start with a good tone. If a conversation is like a song, what genre of music could yours be? Do you really want to start with acid rock, or might a nice jazz tune be just the right note? If you are stressed about the topic, starting well usually requires some planning, focus and effort.

So, how do you begin an awkward, challenging or difficult conversation in a good way? Here are three pointers we’ve seen make conversations go better time and again. The start is only one part of a difficult conversation, of course, but starting well exponentially increases the likelihood that your differing points of view will be addressed well.

1. State with a positive intention for the conversation that you express to the other person early on in the conversation

What is your best intention in having this conversation? Is it to help another person and save them some heartache? Or are you stretched and stressed and think they are the problem? Find your positive intention for having the conversation. Especially if you’re in a combative frame of mind and perhaps see the other person as the problem, finding a best intention may require some deeper reflection to find a more heart-connected reason for conversing. Once you find a positive intention, express it near the start of the conversation. It could be as simple as: “In this conversation, I really want us both to learn something useful. I want to share my thinking and to hear your perspective too. I hope we can bring both our perspectives to this topic.”

2. Seek or ask for equivalent input from the other person

We also do not know what a positive intention might be for the other person, unless we ask. If you are the one initiating a conversation, the other person will not have the benefit of thinking about what their best intentions might be for a conversation with you. Yet, you can always ask them what they might hope from the conversation. This can be an affirming question to ask near the start and adds to setting a positive tone from the outset. You could ask simply: “What might be your best intention for our conversation?”

3. If there is any common intention, see if you can join together in a common purpose

Joining together in a common purpose for having a conversation that matters is a powerful way to shift from a competitive or adversarial mindset – it’s my way – to one of joint problem solving – let’s engage together. This can create a sense that you two are joined “against” the problem, instead of each other. This orientation shifts the dynamic from being a one-sided conversation (yours), to making it both of you looking at the problem. This enables for more robust, innovative and, ultimately, more creative solutions. If the other person says something like they don’t want an argument as their best intention, you could say, “We both want to get to an understanding that works for both of us, and listen to each other, giving each other time to finish.” “Is that right?” You also want the other person to affirm what you have suggested. If not, you can continue this mini conversation until you get to a mutual understanding of something you would both like to achieve.

These three pointers are the tip of the conversational iceberg, but they are potent and enough to get you started! You are brave, so get going!

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