Account for your emotions
Before a single word is spoken, your emotional state can influence the quality of a discussion. For instance, if you’re stressed, your higher brain functions temporarily weaken, your perspective narrows and you are literally less able to hear what’s being said.
When you need to address something upsetting, it’s best to wait until you feel calm. And if an exchange becomes heated, remember that time outs aren’t just for kids. “You can say that you need to take a break,” says Jacqueline Peters, a relationship and executive coach. “But reassure the other person that you’re going to revisit the issue later at a set time so that this strategy doesn’t become a form of conflict avoidance.”
Think like a negotiator
People often enter into high-stakes conversations having rehearsed their own position ad nauseam, which may be counter-productive. “Don’t go in thinking that there’s only one solution and that you already know what it is,” says Misha Glouberman, a communication skills trainer. Instead, he suggests sparking a joint problem-solving effort by thinking about what outcomes really matter to you, and then keeping an open mind.
For example, if your neighbour’s tree is shedding leaves on your lawn and your arthritis makes it hard to hold a rake, you could demand that she just cut the tree down. That’s one possible solution, but what really matters to you is having less gardening. Maybe a higher fence could help. Or if you talk to your neighbour about your needs, perhaps she’ll suggest that her kids come over to play in the leaves, clean them up and enjoy some hot chocolate afterwards.
Ask questions before speaking
Trying to communicate without knowing where the other person stands is like attempting to thread a needle in the dark. “People get really intent on telling their side of a story first,” says Peters. “But I’m a big fan of starting by asking questions.” This, she says, will help you avoid assumptions: you might think you know what you and the other person agree and disagree on, but you could be wrong.
If you’re giving someone feedback, for example, first ask them if they have their own ideas about where problems lie. “This is especially pertinent if you have power over the person, such as in a parent-child or boss-employee relationship,” says Ric Phillips, owner of a coaching and training firm. “If you just unilaterally tell them your own assessment, they could feel like they have to pretend to agree with you.”