The most important part of a conversation may not be the actual conversation. It may be the stories in our mind that we bring to the conversation, hampering our contributions and understanding.
“In our interactions, we aren’t transmitting and receiving data like TVs and radios – signal sent, signal received. Unlike radio antennas, our reception of others’ words is rarely straightforward because of our big, beautiful, filtering, sense making brain,” consultant and seasoned mediator Chuck Wisner writes in The Art of Conscious Conversations.
Of course, the same thing is happening for our conversation partner. “What we say isn’t what someone else heard, and what someone else says isn’t what we hear,” he says.
To have a healthy collaborative conversation, we need to hold our stories lightly and learn to ask questions. We need to seek to understand, not being afraid of the collaboration’s dynamic give and take. Conversations are with others, but we need to be aware of the conversation within, becoming better witnesses of ourselves.
He breaks the stories in our mind down into three elements: Emotions, facts and opinions. Marcel Proust wrote that “our emotions are geological upheavals of thoughts.” Our beliefs about right and wrong surface as emotions during conversations. Unsettling emotions can trip us up. Mr. Wisner says they are a signal that it’s time to examine the harm they may create. Emotional awareness is critical to successful conversations.
He asks you to imagine a funnel, with calm, understanding, compassion and peace at the top. But it can spiral down to the bottom, becoming a swirl of fear. In conversations, we need to watch when we spiral down, from open and positive to closed, fearful and negative.
You’ve undoubtedly been caught up in this spiral innumerable times, the other person speaking while thoughts race through your mind like “he’s impossible” or “with this idiot in charge, we’ll never make the deadline.”
There is an outside conversation between you and the other person – ostensibly, The Actual Conversation – about to spiral out of control as your inner mind takes you to a negative or even oppositional mindset. He asks you to consider: “What am I imagining or making up? What am I feeling right now? What assumptions am I making up? What are the facts? What is true?”
To be able to do this, in real time, he urges you to watch yourself carefully. Investigate what fears might be lurking in the background of your reactions. Consider whether certain emotions are more prevalent for you. And focus on determining the indisputable facts. “Facts are a welcome, stable element – solid ground to stand on. In a sane world, they are inarguable. But our stories often deceive us because facts can surface uncomfortable truths that we won’t or can’t accept,” he writes.
That means being willing to explore inconvenient truths and being able to accept facts that are upsetting, which he stresses doesn’t mean you like or approve them. Ms. Wisner says he is punctual and his wife often late. That used to trigger him. He needed to talk about it with her, accept the facts of their differences, and find a win-win solution.
The third element hidden within your conversation is opinions. Mr. Wisner says we would be confused and rudderless without our interpretations and individual quirks. “In conversations, opinions play a prominent role, overriding facts, and it is far too common in dialogue for the two to be inflated,” he warns.
Those are all part of your conversations. You need to think of conversations as a duality, you and the other party, but also you and yourself. Improving your conversations with others may come down to being conscious of this internal conversation within yourself.
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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.