Updated: Apr 16
The reality is that not all conversations go the way we want them to. Some plug along in neutral, wishy-washy by their very nature. Others we know going in are going to be tense, as the conversation topic is fraught with misunderstanding or the level of trust between participants is low. And still others take an unexpected turn and we lose control of where the conversation is going and the intent of connecting.
This is real life. As individuals who are part of these conversations, we need to be aware of where we are personally, and where those we are speaking with are too.
Knowing where we are is relatively simple. If we pause and “feel” our emotions we get clues: are we comfortable or uncomfortable? Are interested in what is being said or looking for a way to get out? Are we afraid of what might be said next? What is running through our head? Is trust high or low?
Knowing where someone else is takes a little more work. We need to “listen” for clues (all while managing our own responses). What is their tone of voice? Are they asking relevant questions, or have they tuned you out? Is there an underlying message to what they are saying that you can pick up? Do you feel that trust is high, or are you sensing that the other person is holding something back (not trusting the conversation)?
Knowing how to “listen” to our own responses and those of other participants in the conversation, and to use these clues to shift the conversation to a more positive tone, is one of five conversational essentials skills.1 From a conversational essentials perspective this is called “sustaining conversational agility.”
Sustaining conversational agility2 is composed of three techniques: reframing, refocusing, and redirecting. And, I’m betting that you have exercised all three in your role as a parent or team leader without realizing what you were doing.
Reframing is as simple as asking: What did we learn? How else might we look at the situation? A simple shift in how we look at things can change our view significantly. I know, I’ve done it for myself…
As an entrepreneur I find myself trying new things all the time – and as a result find myself in “failure” mode more than I would like (I hear similar messages from my clients as well). However, something I read or watched helped me to reframe this. Now I look at each new thing that I try as an “experiment” and a means of gathering data that will help me fine-tune my offerings to better meet the needs of my clients. This simple shift, which I explored in my blog post I can’t fail these tests – and neither can you! has had a significant impact on my growth mindset.
While this example focuses on an internal conversation, the same concept holds true in external conversations. By helping others shift the focus from what isn’t working to what is working or what is being learned, we can help them re-frame their thoughts in a more positive way.
The second component of being able to sustain conversational agility is the ability to refocus yourself and those with whom you are speaking. Refocusing is slightly different – but an equally valuable conversational tool that helps people move from being stuck in one spot or with one perspective to a new, healthier place.
Refocusing requires that you acknowledge a strength, skill, or personal attribute (such as “I appreciate your attention to…”) and then ask them to apply that to a new opportunity or project as a means of moving them forward.
For example, if you have a staff member who is worrying over getting a project 100% perfect and you need them to move forward, you could say “I appreciate your attention to detail on this project – and I’m really impressed with the work you have done. I’d like to sign off on the current project, as I have a new project that really could benefit from your attention to detail.”
By refocusing them on the new project, you can move them from a place of being stuck into one of moving forward. It’s a simple technique that requires finding a way to turn what could be seen as a ‘negative’ into an asset and asking the other person to apply this asset to a new project.
The third tool to help sustain conversational agility is redirecting. As parents, we often use redirecting to shift our child’s attention away from something that is bothering them. It often looks something like this with our children: “Rose, did you see the picture of the puppy in the newspaper? Isn’t he cute?” and suddenly our child who was stressed, unhappy or having a meltdown shifts their focus and things calm down. Constructive conversation is now possible.
Obviously, it looks a little different with an adult. However, it is still possible to shift the tone of the conversation and reduce the stress in the conversation by redirecting their attention, even if only for a moment or two. This “moment” allows them to breathe and provides the space for thinking to shift, particularly if we can move their attention to something that is positive.
All three conversational agility tools – refocus, reframe, and redirect – require practice and skill development to be applied well. There is no pre-set road map (as much as we might all like one) that provides us with the right response for each situation; there are too many variables. Start small, tackle one conversational agility skill at a time, and practice.
Let us know how it goes and how each one changes your conversations.
Angie McLeod, HIP Strategic Consulting is skilled Facilitator and Business Strategist who uses Conversational Intelligence tools and techniques to help her clients improve their communication and planning processes.
1 The conversational essentials are: listening to connect, asking questions to which you have no answers, sustaining conversational agility, priming for trust, and double-clicking.
2 Judith E. Glaser explores the concept of Conversational Agility: Reframing, Refocusing, and Redirecting in greater detail in this article from January 20, 2015.