Talking about “the tough stuff” is something everyone avoids. I’m often asked why can’t I be “lighter”? Talk about less serious stuff? I’ve gotten better at small talk, but I find that, with the right approach and use of language, people are actually willing to have conversations about topics that aren’t always so light. Receiving opinions without judgment and listening are key; admittedly, these things are much easier to do in a professional setting. I find I still struggle in difficult conversations with my adult children.
“Start with honest words.” This was the advice from last month’s guest on Bytes on Thursday, Maria Seddio. An expert in organizational coaching, Maria has used her background in clinical psychology to guide executives and companies to engage in conversations that start with the truth. As a coach and recruiter, I understand the influence that language has on communication. Speaking with Maria, a professional in guiding conversations, I realized that there are many components involved in building a conversation that matter.
MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
My work brings me into contact with people across the spectrum of identity, so my sensitivity to word choice is acute. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think about how you are approaching the conversation. Different generations will expect different protocols. My father will get angry if no one calls on his birthday. I prefer a card in the mail or a call can work too. My adult kids are more the texters, but will still use Facebook or email on occasion. The teenagers of today are resistant to email but might learn to adapt as they enter university and the workforce (adulting, oh no!)
WORD CHOICES MATTER
Conversations that matter require word choices that are intentional when responding to a discussion. I’ve been inculcated by my children that it’s better to use genderless terms, e.g. “kids” or “children” in place of “girls and boys”. Gender is an important topic for the youth of today, and non-gendered language signals empathy and respect for their communication style. If you work in the U.S. South, a region known for its cordial informality, the phrase “you all” might be better received than saying “guys” or by using “team” to refer to a group. We must be sensitive to all the places where personal or geographic bias can enter and influence a conversation.
BIAS IN JOB DESCRIPTIONS
The terminology used in writing HR documents can have a long-lasting impact. Job descriptions, performance reviews, and the minutes from meetings where decisions are made all influence company culture and the context in which that company is perceived. Just as writers have editors, it’s not a bad idea to use the buddy system to prepare important communications. A strong leader, like an astute writer, will know that it’s difficult to edit oneself. Intergenerational mentoring at work can uplift colleagues, junior and senior alike. I heard a very senior leader mention that they have a Millennial “mentee” who also shares terms, viewpoints, and changing “styles”. My daughter took me shopping for some new jeans because she said my “mom jeans weren’t cutting it anymore.” The communication de mode changes as generations evolve, and we can learn new skills from young new hires and their bosses.
Try this activity: apply the principles of continuous learning to your conversation skills. From word choices, to format, and subject matter, observe your interactions and reflect on how they flowed (or didn’t) and what was the outcome(s). What can you learn that can strengthen your ability to have successful conversations? By continuously learning and improving upon our personal communication mode, maybe we can even encourage better civil conversations too.
Continuous learning is a critical factor for a successful career and helps create resilience through transitions and growth. I created a resilience toolkit for professionals, with tips for continuous learning, adapting to change, and more.
SET THE STAGE
One of my favorite tools for successful conversations is stage setting using context.
Before I make a statement, I often describe my thought process or perspective, and this helps me to be better understood overall. I also had an experience over the break with a very difficult conversation that I didn’t think was repairable. Ultimately, I hung in there and was able to move past the name-calling and recriminations to the hurt, anger, and fear. It brought us to a new level. We agreed to use conversations or voice mail, no texting, so there would be less misinterpretation. I realized the person needed to hear from me more and receive positive reinforcement more to feel valued and a greater connection with me. It was eye-opening and painful.
Some people may think it’s a waste of time to share stories or talk about where you come from. But if we don’t spend the time getting to know each other, how can we be more empathic when we listen and discuss topics that matter (to each other) with each other? Tolerating is not empathy. Sympathizing is different from empathy too. If we can be patient and take time to really hear, and reflect on, what someone is saying, we may have better conversations. We may feel less defensive, we may have better solutions to the challenges we face.
In our Bytes interview, Maria spoke about the importance of building relationships, trust, and a safe place. I’ve read ideas about this from relationship experts like the Gottmans, or Brené Brown, who talk about the strength of trust to help get us through tough times. A relationship bond, be it professional or personal, can be tested in different situations. Invest time into building trust-based relationships now; and reduce the risk that tough moments, later on, will derail them.
The past couple of years uprooted what most people expected for their lives daily, and beyond. The transition to a “new normal” is ongoing and will continue to evolve as well also (hopefully) learn.
How can we nurture relationships and communicate on important issues in a way that helps more people thrive?
I resolve to dig deeper this year and to keep learning new ways to build conversations that matter.
Onward & Upward!