Guest Blog: A four-step approach to navigating difficult conversations

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by Madeleine Monaghan, MBA, MAT
Global Training Manager, Aventri

Cancellations. Postponements. Contracts to renegotiate. Lack of leverage with vendors.

Meeting professionals today face challenging conversations. How can you steer these discussions to positive outcomes?

I tell planners to lean on their natural talents and active listening skills. With effective communication strategies, you:

  • Drill down to the heart of the issue
  • Create win-win options
  • Preserve valuable relationships with customers and partners

Here’s how this process works.

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Step 1: Recognize conversational styles.

Although everyone has a unique way of speaking, certain patterns characterize different styles. Most conversations fall somewhere in the middle of this conversation spectrum:

  • High-involvement: Picture a large family dinner with everyone crowded around the table and chiming in on the discussion. There’s never a break in the conversation. People speak loudly, with drama. They tell personal stories and ask personal questions to show they care.
  • High-considerateness: Now, imagine a business or academic lunch. People sit farther apart, giving more physical as well as verbal space. They talk about impersonal topics in level tones with minimal gestures. Gaps of silence follow each statement, as everyone waits respectfully for others to finish before starting to speak.

It helps to know what type of conversation you’re in, or misunderstandings can arise. Maybe you think her interruptions show a lack of respect, but she believes they’re signs of enthusiastic listening. Perhaps you take his silence as the mark of indifference, while he thinks it’s considerate to leave plenty of room for others to speak.

Step 2: Know your triggers.

Next, look in the mirror and recognize your own conversation style. Do you get uncomfortable after five seconds of silence? Or can you sit quite happily for 20 seconds waiting for someone to talk?

It’s important to identify any triggers that make you uncomfortable or just plain irk you. Is the dominant talker a trigger? Does it drive you up a wall every time he butts in? What about the formal talker who converses on impersonal topics using big words? Or people who rattle on but never get to the point?

Conversation triggers aggravate you at a deep, personal level. They can cause you to think or say something irrational, and that’s not exactly a healthy situation in which you can succeed. So take the time to identify them as a step on the path to a solution-focused mindset.

Here’s my list of Top 5 Conversation Triggers. Rate them on a scale of 1 (not a problem) to 7 (drives you up the wall).

  Don’t Let These Triggers Take Your Conversation Sideways  
TriggerRating
They dominate the conversation 
Have a hidden agenda 
Are uncommunicative and withdrawn 
Speak abstractly, making them hard to follow 
Are closed to other people’s ideas 

Scale

Not a Problem                                                                                                              Big Problem

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Step 3: Use active listening skills.

Once you know your triggers, it’s time to neutralize your biases and engage with active listening skills to pull the conversation along to a positive outcome.

What exactly is “active listening”?

It’s an approach to listening that helps you gain more information, deepen your understanding of other points of view and work collaboratively. Active listening is a powerful tool. That’s why more and more business leaders are taking it on as a serious skill and are reaping the benefits.

Whether you’re rescheduling an event or requesting a refund, you can’t negotiate effectively until you understand what the other person wants. So try these active listening and engagement techniques to achieve your communication objectives and preserve valuable business and personal relationships.

  • Clarify the issue. While you’re in active listening mode, limit your comments to things that will help you get the fullest informational and emotional content from your conversation partner.
  • Restate the problem in your own words, boiling it down to essentials. Let people know you received their message.
  • Validate any emotions you hear. You might say, “I know, it’s really disappointing,” or “Yes, this is so frustrating.”
  • Build trust by remaining nonjudgmental. Try to understand the situation from the speaker’s perspective. Later, you’ll want to present your own position. But to be a good listener, you should hold off till you thoroughly understand the speaker’s point of view.
  • Reflect aloud on what the speaker has said. When we do this, we often learn the message we received isn’t what speakers intended. Reflecting gives them a chance to correct misunderstandings, so you gain a deeper, more accurate understanding.

Active listening is often part of a longer conversation. Once you feel you truly understand the other person’s perspective, you can switch to a more direct or persuasive mode.

Step 4: Share in creating solutions.

How do strategic communications help resolve everyday problems?

Let’s say I’m at the airport, and my flight gets cancelled. I’m not going to walk up to an attendant and complain loudly. Nor am I going to say, “I need you to get me on the next flight.” Neither of these tactics are likely to solve my problem.

Instead, my strategy will be to interrupt, bring awareness, compliment and request a solution. I’ll say: “Hi, I have an issue. I see you’re really busy, and I apologize for the interruption. Here’s the situation. My flight was just canceled. We need to fix this. What’s the solution?”

The same strategic conversation skills work when you navigate difficult conversations with vendors, clients and hotels. Share the job of creating solutions with them. After all, they understand what their company needs and how it operates; they may very well have better solutions than you.

Closing Thoughts

For event professionals, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a matter of cancelling meetings. Cancellations are something planners have always taken in stride.

This health and economic crisis brings massive uncertainty to our personal and professional lives. We’re wondering when travel restrictions will lift. Plus, many of us have had to adjust to working from home, while homeschooling our children.

This unprecedented situation calls for a more comforting touch. When talking with clients and partners, we’re sharing an empathetic moment of, “Oh, isn’t it awful,” and “What’s gonna’ happen?”

Dealing with such abnormalities can be exhausting. That’s why I remind planners that when doctors come into the examination room for checkups, the first thing they do is put on gloves to protect themselves.

When you engage in difficult conversations as planners, your first job is to protect yourself, too. Acknowledge that the coronavirus situation is bad, but it’s not your fault. We’re all in the same boat.

The meetings and events industry is incredibly social. It attracts people who are innately people savvy. So lean on your planner’s heart and spirit deep down within. Use your extraordinary gift for working with people and draw on strategic communication skills.

You’ve got this. The world may be uncertain right now, but your skillset isn’t.


Madeleine Monaghan leads global training for Aventri customers and employees. She brings to her position more than 25 years of experience in designing and delivering professional development seminars and webinars. Madeleine trains business executives in the use of active listening skills to achieve favorable outcomes. She has an MBA in Information Systems with a focus on training and a Master’s degree in Teaching Adult Learners.  

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