The first principle of dialogue – Start with the heart. That is, your own heart. If you can’t get yourself right, you’ll have a hard time getting dialogue right. When conversations become crucial, you’ll resort to the forms of communication that you’ve grown up with – debate, silent treatment, manipulation, and so on.
Work on me first, us second
Although it’s true that there are times when we are merely bystanders in life’s never ending stream of head-on collisions, rarely are we completely innocent. More often that not, we do something to contribute to the problems we’re expecting.
People who are best at dialogue understand this simple fact and turn into the principle “Work on me first, us second”. They realize not only that they are likely to benefit by improving their own approach, but also that they’re the only person they can work on anyway. As much as others may need to change, or we may want them to change, they only person we can continually inspire, prod, and shape – with any degree of success – is the person in the mirror.
There’s a certain irony embedded in this fact. People who believe they need to start with themselves do just that. As they work on themselves, they also become the most skilled at dialogue. So here’s the irony. It’s the most talented, not the least talented, who are continually trying to improve their dialogue skills. As is often the case, the right get richer.
Unlike others who justify their unhealthy behavior by explaining that they had no choice but to fight or flight, the dialogue-smart believe that dialogue, no matter the circumstances, is always an option.
When under attack, our heart can take a similarly sudden and unconscious turn. When faced with pressure and strong opinions, we often stop worrying about the goal of adding to the pool of meaning and start looking for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace.
First, focus on what you REALLY WANT
You can ask these questions either when you find yourself slipping out of dialogue or as reminders when you prepare to step up to a crucial conversation:
❓ What do I really want for myself?
❓ What do I really want for others?
❓ What do I really want for the relationship?
Once you’ve asked yourself what you want, add one more equally telling question:
❓ How would I behave if I really wanted these results?
Second, refuse the Fool’s Choice
We assume we have to choose between getting results and keeping a relationship. In our dumbed-down condition, we don’t even consider the option of achieving both.
That’s why those who are skilled at crucial conversations present their brain with a more complex question. They routinely ask:
❓ What do I want for myself, the other person and the relationship?
As you practice presenting this question to yourself at emotional times, you’ll discover that at first you resist it. When our brain isn’t functioning well, we resist complexity. We adore the ease of simply choosing between attacking or hiding – and the fact that we think it makes us look good. “I’m sorry, but I just had to destroy the guy’s self-image if I was going to keep my integrity. It wasn’t pretty, but it was the right thing to do.”
Fortunately, when you refuse the Fool’s Choice – when you require your brain to solve the more complex problem – more often that not, it does just that. You’ll find there is a way to share your concerns, listen sincerely to those of others, and build the relationship – all the same time.
As you consider what you want, notice when you start talking yourself into a Fool’s Choice.