Why is it so hard to have an authentic conversation? The type of conversation that you feel safe, comfortable, connected with the other person and even if it’s a tough topic, there’s mutual respect and willingness to come to a shared understanding. Either it is in a personal or business situation, wouldn’t it be great if every conversation can be deeply engaging and meaningful like this…
Usually there’s power at play in uncomfortable conversations. If you’re the initiator of the conversation, check-in with yourself if the conversation is becoming directional talk, rather than a dialogue. Obviously you’ll want to be in the space of dialogue, but most conversations are “agenda’d” conversations and “agenda less” conversations are rare, so your agenda can quickly become a directional message that you first tell, then sell, and if that doesn’t work, yell. It’s called the tell-sell-yell escalation.
Our need to be right is triggered, and of course in response, we trigger the defensive routine of the other party and get a mute response.
How to tame our need to be right is a deep deep topic that goes beyond just fixing our conversational style. Nonetheless, on this I’d like to recommend a couple classic readings that will help on the introspection. The first is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, and the second is Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence. For Nonviolent Communication, I have a summary article written on it so please find the link in the transcript of this video.
Meanwhile from my experience as a coach, I find the use of feedback models very practical for helping people learn better conversation skills. Now you might think that feedbacking is a separate topic from conversations but actually it is a conversation, and there’s a lot we can learn by changing our behavior with effective feedbacking skills.
Again there’s no one magic bullet for better feedbacking, so I’m going to introduce all four of my favorite feedback models from my arsenal. Pick and chose any model that resonates with you and most importantly, start practicing them in your next conversation.
The first model that I’ll bring out is SBIN, because it most straight-forwardly addresses a major cognitive bias we all have called fundamental attribution error. It’s a natural defensive mechanism for our self esteem so we can’t be blamed for having it, but it does damage many conversations throughout the day so it’s best we be very aware of it.
It goes like this: when something not good happens, for our own mistake we will typically attribute the cause to situational factors, external factors. While for other people’s mistakes, we tend to attribute the action to their character or personality, internal factors. For example, let’s say you’re driving and you cut in front of someone and you get honked, you might convince yourself that you couldn’t help it because you’re late for an appointment or traffic in front was bad. On the other hand, if someone cuts into your lane, you might react “What a jerk!” and it probably won’t cross your mind that the person could be late for picking up his child from school. Another situation, you’re late for a meeting, you’ll tell yourself you couldn’t help it because you got held up with something else. Someone else in your team is late for a meeting, you chastise that person for being lazy or disrespectful of time. Same thing. In other words, we tend to cut ourselves slack on our own mistakes while holding others fully accountable for their actions.
When giving critical feedback, the key here is to focus on specific behaviors and facts observed, and not to hold a grudge on the person’s personal qualities and character traits. It’s simple; when you start making personal character attacks you won’t get anywhere, but if you stick to the facts and behaviors, you have a better chance at gaining a listening ear.
In the SBIN feedback model, you first layout the situation of the event that happened, then describe the person’s specific behavior that you observed, explain the impact of the behavior on yourself and others, and then discuss next steps for better future actions. So, situation, behavior, impact, next steps. I’ll leave a link to a summary sheet with an example in the transcript.
SBIN is surgical and precise but it can be a bit dry and low on the empathy score. So for those that prefer a feedback model with a more personal touch, I recommend the next model, Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. The model nicely keeps an eye on fundamental attribution error, by caring personally, while challenging directly.
Straight forward feedback that challenges the person directly is great, but if the tone is overly strong, and certainly when fundamental attribution error kicks in, we go into obnoxious aggression zone and the listening ear is lost. On the other hand, if we hold back our thoughts and use indirect, subtle language in the hope that the critical feedback won’t be an emotional blow to the recipient, we go into ruinous empathy zone, and likewise the feedback is ineffective. Good feedbacking is a balance between challenging directly, while caring personally. I have a full write-up on Radical Candor as I’m a big fan and daily user of the practice, so again I’ll leave the article link in the transcript.
Next, my own home brewed model, Curious Active Listening Mindset, CALM. What makes this model so powerful is that it’s about genuine, deep listening, even if you’re giving feedback. And you can use CALM for both feedback giving and receiving.
When you are giving feedback, first, set-up the stage for a dialogue, “Can I share with you something I noticed?” Then remember fundamental attribution error, just state the facts of what you want to feedback about. Only the situation and observed behavior; refrain from any comments that might sound like character judgment. And then take a pause, stop talking and let the other person speak – invite them to share their thoughts. Now listen to them calmly, with curiosity. If you’re parallel thinking while the person is speaking, you’re listening to respond. Catch yourself and quiet your mind, because you’d want to instead, listen to understand. Suspend your assumptions, and listen fully with no interruption. Then comes play-backing. People feel cared and connected when they are heard. So, slowly with compassion, play-back what was said, acknowledge what was heard. Now you’re in a great space to have a dialogue. Offer support, ask more questions for mutual understanding, and if you want to share differences in opinions go ahead, because by now the conversational space is probably safe enough and you’ll have a listening ear. And at the end of the conversation, as a parting gift, offer to speak again.
When you are on the receiving end of feedbacking, know that our innate defensive routines will get triggered almost certainly if we don’t intentionally intervene with consciousness. Activating our Curious Active Listening Mindset is a powerful hack for this. Calmly with curiosity, listen to understand. Suspend assumptions, quiet the mind, don’t listen to respond, if you’re parallel thinking, notice that. Just listen without interruption, without interpretation. And when the feedbacker pauses or stops talking, now it’s time to playback and acknowledge what you heard. And from here have a good discussion if you want to. Differences are ok, it’s now probably a safe conversational space to share any disagreement. And ask to co-create solutions, ask for support and keep the door open by agreeing to speak again.
What I like about CALM is that you can also use it for agenda-less conversations. “Hey, I just wanted to catch up with you, no agenda, how are you?” And then calmly with curiosity, listen with compassion. You’ll have a great, engaging talk. An authentic conversation.
The last model that I would like to share with you is for positive feedbacking. Not all feedback has to be critical or corrective feedback. As a matter of fact, we have such a strong negative bias inclination, we don’t give people enough praises, recognition, celebration. I’m a professional positive psychology coach so this is my domain. So I created a feedbacking model specific for this. I named it FFF, Feed-Forwarding Formula. So, from feedbacking to feed-forwarding. Consider it an extension of a similarly known practice called Appreciative Inquiry, AI.
So, praise. And when you praise someone, make it specific, personal. Generic praises like “great presentation!”, I call these plain vanilla praises, and they’re tasty, but not memorable. Instead, praise like “Wow Jenny, that closing line was original! Great presentation!” And don’t leave it there, explore. “Tell me more, how did you come up with that tag line? I’m sure you’ve thought of other versions, what else…?” And if you feel like the other person is up for it, go further; stretch critique. Positive feedback doesn’t mean that you can’t critique. First ask for permission if you can share a thought, this way you won’t spoil the positivity; like “I got inspired by you and came up with a thought; can I share it with you? Beyond…, how about you…?” If the other person is game, go into co-creation mode: “How might we…?” And show that you’re not just lip service, support with action: “That’s a great follow-on idea! How soon can we find an opportunity to try it out? Can I help you?”
So, SBIN, if you sometimes get muted responses when you speak to somebody and you are conscious it’s your fundamental attribution error tendency that’s causing it. And Radical Candor; dial-up your caring personally if you tend to go into Obnoxious Aggression zone, and dial-up challenging directly if Ruinous Empathy is your trap. And activate your Curious Active Listening Mindset if you feel you talk too much and listen not enough, or you feel you’re quick to shut down even on the slightest challenge from someone. And FFF, Feed-Forward Formula, if you want to make your day full of positivity with anyone that you interact with.
The use of mental models is closely tied with the psychology of habit formation. The Feedback models that I introduced to you today are great tools to build better habits around conversations. Pick anyone of them that resonates with you, and consciously use them, experiment them in everyday conversations. Soon you’ll find yourself having deeply connecting, invigorating, authentic conversations.
You may also enjoy this follow-up article, “What is an authentic conversation?”.