October 22, 2019

Dialogue Skills: Part 1

Mental Health & Wellbeing

In my last blog, I introduced two concepts that make for successful conversations when the stakes are high, emotions are strong, and opinions differ. Check it out here! The concepts of avoiding the fool’s choice and adding to the pool of meaning were introduced in the book, “Crucial Conversations.” In this blog, we are going to look at how you develop dialogue skills that promote these two concepts of successful crucial conversations.

Self Examination

The first step in becoming a better communicator is to take a look at yourself and identify ways you can change in order to avoid the fool’s choice and add to the pool of meaning. When you find yourself in an important conversation and begin to feel your emotions intensify, how do you tend to respond? Do you withdraw and get silent? Do you manipulate the situation to get what you want? Do you plant you stake in the ground and prepare yourself for a debate? Having successful conversations requires you to be aware of what you do to promote or inhibit the free flow of information.

Identify the way you tend to respond, and seek to understand how your style influences the conversation. It is tempting to pick up the false notion that if the other person changes, then everything will be better. If your crucial conversations end in silence, resentment, quiet resistance, etc., don’t let yourself continue down the same path again and again. Challenge yourself today to change yourself.

Identify Your Motive

Identify what you want out of the conversation. For example, you might say, “What I really want is to collaborate with my spouse to decide where our children will attend school. I want to make a decision that we are all happy with.” Skilled conversationalists keep their motivation at the front of their mind throughout a conversation, allowing it to inform how they proceed in the conversation.

However, when emotions escalate and pressure increases because of differing opinions, we can feel threatened, and all too often, we abandon our original motive. Sometimes, this happens so quickly that we don’t recognize it is happening. In the middle of the conversation, we start feeling threatened, our adrenaline kicks in, and our motive quietly shifts.

Our original goal takes a back seat to new goals like, “I need to win,” “I must correct the facts,” or even, out of our anger, “I’m going to teach him a lesson.” Another way motivation shifts is by taking flight from the conversation. This looks like withdrawing from the conversation, becoming quiet, or doing whatever it takes to keep the peace. These are dialogue killers, and prevent successful conversations. Shifting motivations prevent all of the relevant information from getting into the pool of meaning.

How to stay focused in a conversation

As indicated above, prep for a conversation. Identify what you want and what a successful conversation will produce. Also, identify what you don’t want. Here are four questions to ask yourself before a critical conversation to help you stay focused:

What do I really want for myself?
What do I really want for others?
What do I really want for this relationship?
What is something I really don’t want?

After identifying what you want and what you don’t want, ask yourself how you can accomplish both. For example, “How can I have a conversation with my spouse about our vacation plans without dominating the conversation and letting my anger take over.” Or, “Is it possible to talk with my neighbor about their loud music without offending them?” This is your goal.

Use these questions and your stated goal to help you refocus during a conversation. When you sense your emotions taking over, or you notice that you are debating, trying to win, or withdrawing and getting quiet, ask yourself, “What do I really want?” This is your compass. Not only does this question reorient you mind, it can also deescalate strong emotions. Challenging your brain to a cognitive question, taking a deep breath, and relaxing your muscles can physiologically shift the brain out of its fight or flight mode, and help you think more clearly.

This way of communicating takes practice, but it can be learned. Sometimes, learning new things can be enhanced by having a coach or someone to help encourage and challenge us towards our goals. Counseling is a great way to provide support when learning new ways of communicating. I would love to help you as you work towards learning new dialogue skills. Give me a call today!

Written by therapist Amie Bilson

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