Communication at work can get complicated because we all come with emotional baggage. As one reaction begets another, there can be unexpected clashes—and before you know it, too much has been said, too much damage done. Holly Weeks’ Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them—which believes in the premise that emotion underlies most human activities—gives tactics for diverting the communication in the right direction.
Weeks, a teacher, consultant and publisher of communication issues, puts the emphasis on handling difficult conversations well. She is adjunct lecturer in management leadership and decision sciences at the Harvard Kennedy School, US, and visiting pro-seminar lecturer in communication and vision speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Through her company, Holly Weeks Communication, she coaches on negotiation, presentation, and written and conversational communications issues, with special emphasis on sensitive and difficult problems.
In a chapter titled “Out of Emotion’s Grip”, Weeks lists some practical tips to get out of an emotionally charged situation, especially if you have to do it unilaterally, without any support from your counterpart. Edited excerpts:
Failure to Communicate—How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them: By Holly Weeks,236 pages, Rs 495.
A lot of what’s difficult in toxic conversations has emotional roots, but not emotional solutions. Yes, we have our signature emotional states, with anger, embarrassment, or fear thrown in. And to be sure, it’s unrealistic to ask people to stop having the feelings they have. So rather than ask for the improbable, we will accept that there are strong emotions in difficult conversations—but we won’t stop there. As David Mamet says, handling ourselves well isn’t based on how we feel.
We need to add real skill to prevent our emotions from jamming us up. Only after our skill increases and outcomes get better will the grip of big emotions loosen. To get real skill, we need to give up two familiar approaches. First, we cannot keep trying to throttle our emotions with the control model—insisting that we must control our emotions. And second, we don’t want to run in the opposite direction, overreacting willy-nilly to whatever comes up in the conversation—insisting that we can’t control our emotions.
If we take away both emotional control and emotional overreaction, we need good, functional tactics to put in their place:
•Find the middle groundbetween emotional extremes
The choice between choking off our feelings and letting them rip is itself an extreme choice. When we find a balance point between emotional extremes, we can choose what to do or which way to move from that midpoint, not from the outermost emotional poles.
•Immunize ourselves against thwarting ploys
We stop simply reacting to what’s thrown at us and learn to protect ourselves where we’re vulnerable. This is like scientists who, when studying how a pathogen compromises a cell, focus on the cell, not the bug—but we’ll focus on ourselves.
When a conversation is going south, most of us have such a small stock of tactics to use that when the first thing we try doesn’t work, we just keep on doing it. We need more ways to handle the rough patches. It’s more effective and much easier when we have several tacks we can take.
•Recover from mistakes
Even with the best will in the world, we’ll still make mistakes. Given that, we need a sound technique for recovering from them, so that a blunder doesn’t take on a life of its own and move to centre stage in the conversation.
We will highlight each of these four tactics separately, but we’ll also see that there is movement back and forth among them. Thwarting ploys don’t come one at a time, and we often weave good countering tactics together to meet and offset them.
Looking back at the campaign meeting, it’s clear that Erica and Stewart’s (two managers mentioned in a previous chapter) conversation had gone completely out of balance by the time it was over. But there’s no question that these four basic tactics—finding middle ground, protecting ourselves against thwarting ploys, changing tack, and recovering from error—could have snatched the conversation from the jaws of defeat.
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