by Chuck Wisner, author of “Conscious Conversations”
Just last week, one of my clients, Bob, a technical director, was yelled at by Vice President Stuart in a meeting. Bob was presenting critical tech specs when Stuart cut him abruptly to ask why his team hadn’t achieved their goal. The rebuke hit Bob, who slumped in his chair and resented the public scolding.
One of my neighbors, Becky, a mother of three young children, had an awkward exchange with another neighbor, Charlie. When Becky asked Charlie when he would have some trees removed from their shared property line, he turned around and barked, “How about you pay for it!”
Conversations go south every day at home and at work. When things go bad, we stress, then turn to frustration, anger, and resentment. Most of us do not have the tools to honestly recognize our role in creating unproductive conversations or to be respectful and humble with others.
I practice a four-question formula that I preach to my clients just for these moments. The questions allow us to step out of our emotional triggers and diagnose our thoughts. I like to think of it as “thinking about thinking”. To be successful, we have to walk the sometimes painful path of reflecting on our judgments while interacting with others.
Here are questions to ask ourselves when we feel like a spiral of conversation is spiraling out of control:
Wishes: What do I want? What desire drives my dissatisfaction?
In the most difficult situations we have unconscious needs and desires. My deepest wish for my children to be happy is angry when my desires do not match reality. This misalignment causes a lot of human suffering.
Concerns: What are my concerns?
Our concerns are time sensitive. When I wake up at 4 a.m. worried about my schedule, I project into the future with no chance of influencing it. We don’t want tomorrow to be like today. We don’t want to see another argument with our boss.
Authority: What authority or power do I have in this situation?
Power plays out in every conversation, whether we are aware of it or not. When I hear a friend’s strong opinion, I may or may not respond depending on the authority I give to their vote. When working with clients, they must accept the reality of the hierarchies in which they work. Disruptions in family and business life are often due to an unhealthy ignorance of the dynamics of power.
Standards: Which standards shape my opinion?
From day one we set standards to live according to the culture in which we grow up, according to our mother religion, according to our educational opportunities, according to our families. We subconsciously live from stories about good and bad, beauty and ugliness, fairness and injustice, right and wrong. My father was adopted at a young age. His new father, my grandfather, was a racist. When I was very young, his words and actions towards people of color invaded my innocent mind. It took me years to root out his ugly lies.
These questions can be insightful and illuminating. If we have the courage to ask them, we are rewarded with a window into previously unconscious thoughts. Most of us have active committee members on our minds who judge ourselves and others. These questions can short-circuit our inner critic and help us become aware of our thoughts, which allows us to rethink our conversations.
As my client Bob took the time to ask himself these questions, he discovered new truths about himself. So he replied:
Desire: He wanted to speak more confidently in meetings.
Concern, concern: He was worried about his team. They had done their homework and their answers were being questioned.
Authority: With Stuart being his boss and friend, it was easier for Bob to go away than to speak out.
Standards: His two management standards were respect and tolerance, and Stuart didn’t seem to uphold either.
After Bob asked and answered the questions, he was more confident, confident, and deliberate as he prepared for his next conversation with Stuart.
Answering the four questions will help us interact with others:
Wishes: When I am aware of what I want, I understand the importance of asking what others want and discovering differences or similarities that are easy to talk about.
To care: Awareness of my concerns helps me understand how I have overlooked other people’s concerns. That helps us build bridges in the future.
Authority: Understanding and accepting the performance dynamics is essential for healthy communication. Are you wondering if a particular relationship is based on equality, hierarchy, or authority (given or taken)?
Standards: When I understand my standards, I can be curious about the standards of others that shape every opinion and judgment. When standards emerge, they often offer a non-judgmental way of accepting differences and discovering similarities.
After Becky asked herself these questions, she spoke to Charlie about her wishes and concerns and asked about his. She apologized for barking at him about the trees. She just wanted to know his plan and if he had any concerns about the safety of the trees. Charlie admitted he was concerned and stated that he had consulted a tree expert to determine if the trees were a threat. The expert said they were not an imminent threat, but they would have to be eliminated within the year. Charlie also stated that tree removal was incredibly expensive and he saved money on removing it. Becky said her family had gone to great lengths to remove ten trees years ago, then asked him to keep her informed.
The tone of their conversation was completely changed with the help of these questions about common wishes and concerns. Becky showed humility and grace and Charlie opened up because he felt safe.
The four questions are an effective formula for honestly expressing thoughts and feelings. Nobody escapes the grip of unconscious judgments without thinking about thinking. Asking thoughtful, well-meaning questions to understand the opinions and feelings of others can transform any conversation. The four questions are universally applicable and powerful. Use them wisely.
Chuck Wisner is a sought-after strategic thinker, coach and teacher in the areas of organizational strategy, human dynamics, communication and excellent leadership. He currently works as a consultant to executives and their teams at major technology companies in the US, other Fortune 200 companies, and nonprofits. Wisner is the author of the upcoming book, Conscious Conversations.