Three Ways to Prepare for a Constructive Conversation
If you've been following my work, you know that I'm interested in making conversations on controversial topics more constructive and less contentious. I think I'm making progress, but, yesterday I had a contentious conversation with someone who I am in basic agreement with. The topic was how you persuade people. Ironic, I know.
After a little reflection, I realized that I had not prepared. It had not even occurred to me to prepare — I thought we were in basic agreement. But as a result, I didn't have the mental resources I needed to have a constructive conversation.
The #1 resource you need is mental "crow"1 space. A conversation is a kind of performance. Your performance will degrade if you get mentally overloaded. You need to have the mental wherewithal to adapt and adjust as you go. If you are scrambling to keep your next point in mind, or to understand the other person, or to figure out a better argument, you don't have enough capacity for really engaging with the other person.
So how do you prepare for a conversation? One way is to role play with another person in advance. This is very helpful if you predict that you are going to trigger specific objections or defensiveness. You can get someone to act like the other person, and try out ways to handle it.
But even before you role play, you need to do some mental preparation. Otherwise, the role play will go haywire, too. Here are three ways to prepare that will give you more crow space for actually having the conversation.
1.Identify your framework for reaching conclusions in this area
By your framework, I mean the basic assumptions, logical processes, and standards of value you use to decide what is true or false, right or wrong, important or unimportant in this area.
Incidentally, I got the idea of a framework for a conversation from Alex Epstein. If you're remotely interested in this topic, I recommend checking out his Human Flourishing Project podcast. This is my understanding of the issue.
For example, in hindsight, to discuss how to have a conversation, I think my framework should have been something like this:
- Both people are thinking beings, who control their own minds and need to do their own thinking
- Rational agreement results when each person independently sees the truth
- Concretize any abstract ideas using an example that both people can understand
- Start by finding an area of agreement and then work toward understanding and/or resolving any disagreements
- Get clear on the two contexts so that you can identify whether disagreements are due to:
a) lack of knowledge
b) false beliefs
c) imprecise ideas that need clarification
- Alignment: both parties in a conversation need to have compatible goals or intentions in the conversation
- Connection: to be a positive conversation, both parties need to get visibility — some recognition of their values
- Communication: whoever is slowest at understanding needs to set the pace so that neither person gets overloaded
The reason for doing this preparation is to make it easy to spot key logical issues. By doing preparation, there is less thinking you need to do in the conversation, and therefore more crow space available for listening to the other person and addressing what he says.
2. Ground yourself emotionally so that you have sufficient patience
By grounding yourself emotionally, I mean that you preemptively process all of the emotions that you anticipate having in the conversation. You imagine a disaster, and give yourself empathy for that.
This is not just introspecting the emotions, but also understanding the real conflicts. You want harmony, and also self-expression. You want agreement, but this is not under your direct control. You might be concerned that you aren't clear enough, and that therefore you could be manipulated. In each of these cases, you need to come to terms with the conflict, so you go into the conversation with your eyes wide open, not expecting harmony, alignment, and ease which you are unlikely to get.
There are many specific ways to do this. For example, I teach the "empathy bath" in Focused Choices and in the Thinking Lab.
The reason for grounding yourself is so that you can stay "present" in the conversation. By present, I mean that you have enough crow space to be able to process what the other person is saying, plus hear ideas coming up from your subconscious, plus monitor your emotions. If too many ideas or emotions are coming up from your subconscious, you will be overloaded, and will not be able to evaluate and address what the other person says. Pre-emptively grounding yourself emotionally increases your resilience and decreases your excitability. You are less likely to be surprised by what the person says — so you are less likely to be emotionally triggered by it, too.
Incidentally, I learned this from my colleague, Jeff Brown, who is a certified NVC trainer. He says he spends twice as much time preparing for a difficult conversation as he expects the conversation to last. That ensures he has enough emotional resilience to get through the conversation, even if the other person doesn't give him an inch. His emotional reservoirs are full, so he can handle any emotional issues that come up for him during the conversation. The result? Tremendous patience, tremendous ability to listen, tremendous ability to come up with creative ways to bridge differences.
3. Identify the appropriate intention to hold in mind
By intention, I mean your goal for the conversation. This is the goal that you hold in mind, that sets the standard for choosing what you say and do.
You need a different intention in different conversations. Your intention needs to be consistent with the other person's. Otherwise you create immediate conflict. The other person gets emotionally triggered and distracted from the conversation. Any attempt to reach some mutual conclusion is undercut.
For example, in a teacher-student conversation, the student's intention is to understand the teacher, and the teacher's intention is to support the student to understand. If you have a teacher's intention, but the person you are talking to doesn't want to be your student, the "student" will feel lectured at. You create immediate conflict that gets in the way of any communication.
As another example, in a leader-follower conversation, the leader's intention is communicate something the follower needs to know to perform his part on the team. The follower's intention is to reach a firsthand agreement with the leader — which may require challenging him respectfully.
If you don't know have any pre-set roles in a conversation, the intention you can always hold, non-controversially, is to connect with the other person, i.e., to in some way identify shared values. You can do this either by giving him "empathy," in which you guess the deep rational values behind what he's saying, or you can express yourself in terms of deep rational values and see if he responds. More informally, you may tell a story to establish connection. If you keep your intention on connecting, even if you don't succeed with your first attempt, you will get information from the other person that will help you adjust and connect on the second or third try.
For those who don't recognize it, this is the method I learned from Marshall Rosenberg. "Connection" works as an all-purpose intention in social situations, because it is the fundamental value you get from associating with other people. When you make a connection, you are seeing that person as a rational valuer — an asset to your life in that respect.
The need to have consistent intentions means some intentions are ruled out, such as "get him to agree with me" or "make him do it." I believe these are ruled out on the basis of respecting the other person's thinking mind — you need to leave him free to do his own thinking, as my friend Catherine Dickerson says. It would be irrational of the other person to hold an intention compatible with your authoritarian one, such as "don't make waves" or "just do what the boss says" or "don't judge, just keep harmony."
To be clear, I do not mean mean that you drop any desire to persuade someone of your point of view or to convince him to take an action. You may have as your longer-range goal to persuade people of your point of view or to find someone who could cooperate with you to achieve some goal. But you never need the cooperation of any specific person to achieve your long-range goals. (If you think you do, you have set the goal incorrectly.)
Unless you have a friend who genuinely likes arguing, and that is the agreed-upon terms of discussion, persuading the other person should not be your immediate focus. Your focus is on an objective step you can take toward your goals — given what the other person has communicated regarding his interests and intentions. For example, maybe you are trying to find out if he is someone who would be a good person to talk with or collaborate with.
If you short-circuit making sure there is some buy-in from the other person, you kill hope for the communication. You set yourself up as an antagonist.
If this all sounds like a lot of work, I agree. I thought that once I learned some real-time skills, all my conversations would be easy. But I am learning that the real-time skills are only part of the solution. They help with a range of problems. But the more difficult conversations are objectively more difficult. For those, you need to set yourself up for success by preparing yourself logically, emotionally, and mentally for the conversation — so that the real-time skills have a chance to work.
1. “Crow” Space is the capacity of focal awareness. Read more about it in my article What is “Crow” Overload?