What is the role of a conversation? Is it:
- Showing off your expertise?
- Making your counterpart agree with you?
- A healthy exchange of ideas?
A constructive conversation transfers ideas from one mind to another and removes all obstacles from the way. Such a conversation feels as relaxing as a Sunday afternoon in your pajamas.
NPR host Celeste Headlee equates it to a game of catch where you throw as much as you catch. You observe the throw (its direction, height, and speed) and adjust accordingly. Your counterpart does the same.
But in modern times, holding such conversations appears daunting. In the search engine and instant messaging dominated era of immediate answers, we have no time (read patience) to let conversations unfold slowly. In her remarkable NY Times piece, Sherry Turkle wrote that to get quicker answers, we ask simpler (and dumber) questions, even in important matters.
Texts and emails make us feel in control of our responses and time. But they install roadblocks in the path of healthy conversations and outcomes. You cannot text your way to a raise, or remove obstacles holding up a project through an email back-and-forth. Autosuggest in Instant Messaging apps cannot tell you the next response during an argument.
The Components of Constructive Conversations
Even the cleverest algorithms or virtual assistants don’t even come close to human beings when it comes to deep, stimulating conversations. This is an important yet underrated skill. Such conversations build trust, reduce stalemates, and move things forward.
The good news is you can learn it. All this ability demands is mindfully following seven key components.
People often equate listening with silence. But many people remain silent because:
- They’re planning how they’ll respond when it’s their turn,
- They’re waiting for the speaker to finish so they can return to checking Instagram,
- They’re distracted by stories circulating in their heads.
But listening is not hearing to respond. It’s hearing to understand.
Listening doesn’t mean shutting up. It means having nothing to say. — Robert Dreeke
Effective listening helps you understand the other’s perspective and underlying feelings. It demands your complete presence with the speaker, and asking open-ended questions starting with “how” and “what” (and sometimes “why”).
Listen until emotions drain out of a conversation and what’s left is the real issue.
But over-listening tips the balance of a conversation too. (It’s like catch after all.)
The ideal balance is to listen 60 percent and speak 40 percent of the time. Anything more or less often makes a conversation futile (unless your counterparts just want you to hear them out).
A few months ago, my friend lost his mother. His colleague responded with a message that read, “When you return to work, I’ll share how I learned to cope with my father’s loss.”
An empathic response, right? Nope. It’s one of the worst types of response along with “it’s all in your head,” because:
- You don’t know how your counterpart feels even if you’ve been in the same boat. Different people experience the same situation differently.
- You make the situation all about you.
This is not empathy. Nor is trying to highlight the silver lining behind a dark cloud. Because by doing all this, you put yourself on a pedestal which instantly puts off your counterpart.
What people who share something deep with you really want to hear is, “I can’t imagine what it feels like. Is there something I can do?” Often that “something” is just listening without judgment.
In Never Split the Difference, FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss described empathy as “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that perspective.” He also explained that tactical empathy means understanding the mindset and underlying feelings and hearing what’s behind those feelings.
3. Labeling Emotions
Emotions play a vital role in every conversation.
Most people struggle to articulate how they feel in the moment. If we focus purely on words, we’ll end up like Sheldon Cooper. (Well, he can get away with stuff because he’s a genius.)
Likewise, trivializing our counterpart’s emotions builds a wall between them and us. Emotions are not the problem. They’re doorways to constructive conversations.
But we don’t have to feel our counterpart’s emotions to understand them better. We can give them a label.
Labeling emotions means to validate and acknowledge them. According to Voss, using rational words to describe emotions disrupts their raw intensity.
The most effective labels of emotions start with phrases like:
- It seems like… you feel I don’t pay attention to you anymore.
- It sounds like… you feel disappointed because he can do better.
- It looks like… you’re worried that the team will miss its deadline.
Notice the absence of “I think” and “This is my perspective.” Using “I” puts the emphasis on you. It risks making your counterpart feel like you’re imposing your thoughts on them and puts their guard up.
When you label an emotion, listen to what follows. If your counterpart agrees, give yourself a mental high-five. If you get corrected, apologize instead of justifying yourself. If your counterpart says you didn’t get it right, you don’t get to decide whether you did or not.
Your own emotions are a vital part of the conversation too. Don’t ignore them. Label them too.
People also try to “balance” their counterpart’s emotions. They play devil’s advocate if their counterpart is optimistic. Or act chirpy if the other feels low. My ex would flash a dazzling smile when I felt low, and expect me to brighten up when I saw it. Not only did it fail, but it also upset her because I “didn’t care enough about her.”
People don’t behave like this to make their counterpart feel better. Often they do this to make themselves feel better.
Don’t make your counterpart’s feelings all about you. It’s not your responsibility to change their mood (at least not yet).
If you follow points 1, 2 and 3, this becomes a cakewalk.
Summarizing means describing the situation the way your counterpart sees it in your words. This is not a chance to put your thoughts in front of them, or parrot back their words. That feels patronizing.
An accurate summary makes your counterpart say “that’s right” instead of “you’re right.” Subtle difference in words, but a huge difference in mindset.
Think about the last time someone bothered you — a salesperson, boss, colleague, or partner. What did you say to them end the conversation? That’s right. You said, “you’re right.” The signal was as loud as a siren: stop talking.
“You’re right” also means that while people agree with your views, they’ll continue to stick to their beliefs. After all, people are more likely to do something if they believe it was their idea all along.
“That’s right” means your counterpart feels heard AND understood. These words break deadlocks, move things forward, and make it easier to achieve the goal.
It’s a myth that over-communication is better.
How do you feel when people repeat themselves over and over again?
Excessive communication ends conversations before they begin. Fewer words, on the other hand, create a deeper impact. They let your counterpart absorb and think over your words.
Silence is an important part of brevity. Sometimes, silence means your counterpart is thinking. Sometimes it means they’re uncomfortable. Sometimes they want you to go on. Sometimes they’re waiting for you to shut the hell up.
Listen to this silence. Then adapt.
6. Building Mutual Ground
Cracks in a conversation appear when speaker either suffers from the curse of the expert or underestimates the counterpart’s ability to understand.
The curse of the expert makes speakers ramble about a topic and jargonize it because their knowledge is miles ahead of their counterpart(s).
Underestimating a counterpart’s ability to understand makes a speaker dumb down a topic so much that it puts off the listener. (Mansplaining is an example.)
Constructive conversations are held on mutual ground where the speaker uses analogies relevant to the listener to explain how things work from a broader perspective.
A Foster School of Business study showed that people are skeptical to accept emotional intelligence at face value. They trust people whose emotions are authentic, whose actions sync with their words.
A conversation is not constructive if one party has an ulterior motive, or disguises what it wants as an offer for the counterpart. People’s BS-radars have shot through the roof; they can smell a hypocrite from a mile away.
Genuineness makes both parties comfortable and leads to mutually beneficial outcomes. It comes when you care about your counterpart, but don’t let your beliefs take center stage.
Genuineness makes practicing the above-mentioned points possible.
Constructive conversations focus on more than winning an argument or putting your point across. They’re ones where both parties enjoy and feel comfortable, like Sunday afternoon sex. Sometimes one partner enjoys more. But that partner reciprocates at the next chance.
Comfortable conversations build deeper relationships. In the forever-connected-but-lonely era, meaningful relationships are something we badly need.