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Conversation Crossroads

"In order to go on living, one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism."
- Hannah Arendt

But of course we strive for perfection in the relationships and situations that matter most.

We avoid difficult conversations we dread – conversations that may influence our future in negative ways that are unacceptable to us. Because no matter how confident or competent we are as leaders, we think these conversations won’t always go as well as we like, no matter how hard we work at them or how gifted we are at getting along with others.

I used to wait until I had a difficult conversation “right” in my head before I actually had it. I wanted to be sure my approach was a real “scenario survivor” before I tried it out on another person. By the time I had dry-run a conversation in all the ways I thought it possibly could go, it had very little to do with the person with whom I was actually having it. Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine entering into an important conversation without doing my homework, without attempting to carefully direct the conversation in the best ways I knew how.

One day, my coach and colleague Nan Shaw asked me, “What would happen if you tried entering into a conversation such as this without feeling that it was you against the other person, knowing you didn’t have to abandon your position and your feelings to fully listen to theirs, knowing that success would come from standing comfortably and confidently in your own shoes and allowing them to do the same, discovering what the two of you had in common and building upon these discoveries?"

Wow! Music to my ears! I had always thought that one person or another must prevail in a difficult conversation. With great anticipation for a positive outcome, I charged forth into a long over-due conversation only to feel myself go into fight mode the minute the other person took a contradictory point-of-view. Why was I incapable of acting on the insight I had gained from my conversation with Nan? It was only after doing exercises that are a standard part of the Leadership Intensive that I was able to take this insight to heart and begin acting on it.

Over the last six or seven years, the biggest gift to my life has been having some of the most sensitive and difficult conversations turn into the most intimate, healing, and rewarding conversations. Conversations that have really strengthened, deepened, and clarified my relationships with others. Whether it is in conversation with my beloved partner who has terminal cancer, an employee who is not a “fit” for our organization, or having a “we don’t discuss things like this” conversation with a sibling, I have learned to speak from my heart in ways that open up my relationships with others.

I never know where difficult conversations will end when they begin; I no longer need to know. Rather, I stand firmly in my best intentions, open to the views and feelings of others. I allow room for real conversations that breathe to take place.

Read a story that demonstrates this principle of "conversation crossroads".

The following is shared with permission from Nan Shaw, President/Founder of Club Soda and Mattermatics Inc., a consulting company. Nan is a graduate of Center for Authentic Leadership programs and a coach to the clients of the Center's 3-year Future-Thinking International Leadership Community.


Last night my daughter was helping me write some copy for our website. I seem to get writer's block whenever faced with an assignment like that...it probably takes me back to when I pulled all-nighters in college. We were writing about addiction, imagine that! I was speaking and she was recording my words. I mentioned that I thought everyone had addictive habits, and that we usually are not even aware of them until someone brings them to our attention. They just seem normal and natural to us. They are what we do.

Then I had a brain lapse, and nothing more seemed to be occurring to me. Katy suggested I pretend I was talking to her. Nothing. So she invited me to describe what I thought her addictive habit might be. "Rigidity," I said a bit too quickly. I could see her eyes open wide and a look of what I will call "defensive positioning" emerge from her normal energy of sweetness and light.

"You know," she said, "I just don't know why you think that."

("Whoops, proceed carefully," I said to myself silently.)

I explained to her that whenever we had a family get-together, we have grown to expect that we will have to work around her schedule, that we cannot get together in the early part of the day, and she seems to have a lot going on that can never be rearranged.

She told me then that her friends all see her so differently, that she is known for being spontaneous and having few rules, that no one can understand how she does what she does.

She looked at me, and I at her. We were at what I call the crossroads of a conversation . She had stated her viewpoint; I had stated mine. Now what? In the past I would have begun my argument, meticulously dissecting for thorough completion according to me! And she might have withdrawn into silent resentment.

Instead, we both chose to get curious. "Wow," I said to her, "this is interesting. Could it be just with the family?"

"I think it might be," she said.

A miracle, we now have an agreement! We are partners now. That was quick. What might we have been if I had chosen differently?

We continued to explore and we discovered...together...that as a child, the youngest of three, she didn't get to do it her way very often. Mornings were rushed with everyone trying to complete all the tasks that needed to be done before school She had vowed never to have to hurry again...especially in the morning. But because she still saw herself as unable to have much of a say in the family plans, she felt obligated to give us a laundry list of justifications every time she expressed a preference. As a result, we all thought she had this huge "to do" list that couldn't be varied. We both just needed more information so that we could understand each other better.

As a result of a conversation (that in the old days could have ended up with feelings of hurt and disconnection), we felt closer and were able to experience a deeper understanding of each other. We had shared our viewpoints to discover what neither of us knew yet. We were definitely not trying to prove a point, and we were willing to take the time for that which mattered. Both of us were delighted that we had made the correct turn at the Crossroads of a Conversation.

What communication map do you follow? Do you choose to head toward "being right" or "being curious"? Do you want to "win an argument" or "create understanding"? Do you want those you love to feel hurt or that they matter? What choice do you want to make at the crossroads of your next conversation?

Copyright 2004, CLUBSODA, A Division of Mattermatics, Inc.

Posted on Monday, November 1, 2004 at 11:54AM by Registered CommenterJan Smith | Comments Off

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