ALMOST everyone wants to have better communication skills to handle difficult discussions, such as those relating to performance, bad news or actions beyond the call of duty.
A marketing director of a multinational corporation told me of a time when she asked regional distributors to increase their inventory and business forecasts. Her request did not go well, despite all her preparations and head office support, and she was not sure what the difficulty was.
As she reflected on her experience, she felt confused and helpless as to how to proceed further.
People often forget that whenever they get into a difficult discussion, feelings are inevitably involved. These include frustration, arrogance, indifference, anger, helplessness, anxiety and so on.
In the marketing director’s case, it is likely that the distributors were uncertain if they could meet increased forecasts in the current volatile economic climate and felt fear.
Such frustrating and time-consuming outcomes occur not just at professional or business levels but also in people’s personal lives.
Bosses often issue orders and directives in a vacuum, without making any attempt to understand how the recipients will feel about those orders and directives.
Family “discussions” often play out the same arguments over and over again, with no progress being made towards any solution — because feelings are ignored.
When feelings get in the way of discussions, participants “solve” the problem through fright, flight or freeze. None of them is a good solution.
Our most common way of listening is not listening. People fail to comprehend what the other person is telling them.
But even when you do listen to others, if you focus exclusively on listening to content, you tend not to detect the feelings of the speaker.
Listening to and for feelings can sometimes make or break a difficult discussion because feelings are often at the heart of the problem.
A good listener can help the other person “verbalise” the issue that he is facing. This helps him clarify the issue and become better able to move ahead with different options. A good listener will hold back on offering advice until he is clear about the other person’s feelings.
Here is an example of a conversation illustrating this:
Listener: How is work?
Speaker: Stressful and I’m overworked.
Listener: When you are stressed, what happens?
Speaker: I am not able to concentrate and I face persistent conflicts with others. This has affected my ability to perform my sales functions effectively.
At this point, the listener must be careful not to translate this response as an announcement of “persistent conflict with others” and “lower ability to perform sales functions”. Rather, it is a confession of anxiety and fear.
The listener now has three options: ignore, confront or acknowledge, and understand.
Ignoring the response will leave the other person in the dark as to what to do next. Confrontation typically fails to influence the other person to change his action. No progress is made towards solving the problem.
The best option is to acknowledge and understand. Say: “I understand that you feel stressed by the situation. How do you think I can help you perform better?”
Remember to use the pronoun “I” often. The “I” messages show that you recognise and are affected by the other person’s feelings. It helps bring the other person on board.
American poet and writer Maya Angelou aptly sums it up: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Author of Getting Past No and director of the negotiation network at Harvard University William Ury said: “Everyone has a strong need for his or her feelings to be recognised. While factual points are important, knowing the other person’s feelings in a difficult discussion can help to create an atmosphere of understanding and cooperation.”
There is virtually no profession or business in which you are not likely to encounter episodes of difficult communication. When you make the simple and practical shift to listen for feelings, you change a difficult discussion into a more open and participative way of addressing the challenges you face.