August 9th, 2007
Hot Buttons Exercise
In my last few coaching sessions, one of the associates introduced an exercise for improving listening skills. She explained that the exercise is particularly useful for difficult conversations, as our listening ability tends to suffer when emotions are high, identity is threatened, and important negotiating substance is on the line.
The exercise requires that you pick a subject you feel strongly about and then request that a partner argue in favor of the opposite position to your own. For example, if you feel strongly pro-choice on abortion then you would listen to someone arguing pro-life. The challenging part is that as the listener you are not allowed to advocate your own position. Rather you must either genuinely inquire to clarify or better understand the other’s position as well as acknowledge his or her position to demonstrate your attempt to understand.
It is incredibly difficult to cut advocacy out of these conversations for we naturally tend to advocate the more difficult and emotionally charged conversations become. At first I thought that I just had to learn to be quiet in order to withhold from advocacy and practice genuine inquiry. The challenge, I thought, was to stop talking long enough to be able to listen to another person. As the practice continues, however, I have learned that external silence is not enough. The listener must also practice quieting her inner voice. Only then can we put aside our agendas and values long enough to be sincerely curious about someone else’s.
Tonight was the annual Insight Fellows dinner. It was a long-awaited reunion of all Insight’s trainers, staff and old and new Fellows. Up until the dinner we had only read the journals and corresponded electronically with the previous Fellows. The international part of the Fellowship thus seemed very difficult to conceptualize as our experience thus far had been Boston-based.
Watching the former Fellows present their research, share stories, and share insights, I finally realized what an incredible experience lay before me. Comforted by the realization that this can be done and is more than an ideal, the petty frustrations I had been facing with grant writing and placements ebbed. Each Fellow described the difference the year had made in their experience in light of the self-development challenges inscribed in the Fellowship Guidelines.
I also was struck by the strong bond that existed between the four former Fellows. It was a bond of understanding and support — an understanding that they have all embraced the same challenge and supported each other through its best as well as its roughest moments. Watching them, I imagined the family of future Fellows that would emerge over the years as more and more individuals shared this unique opportunity.
Difficult Conversations Prep
Today I had another coaching session. I requested to focus on preparing for a specific difficult conversation this time. I was in a negotiation with an acquaintance who was using aggressive and zero sum strategies. Her style was making it incredibly difficult to get anywhere we were wasting time between her aggressiveness and my defensiveness.
I entered the session seeking strategies to help coax my acquaintance to a more collaborative negotiating style. My coach for this session surprised me with a very interesting response “What if this woman cannot be changed? What if she is as she is? What will you do then?”
It had never even occurred to me that through reasoned conversation and enough evidence. this woman wouldn’t of her own accord be more collaborative. It was a shock to think about a situation where you could not assume any influence.
After discussing it through the coaching sessions I began to realize that you cannot assume you can change the other person. Thus that leaves you with three choices: you can leave the negotiation (to pursue an alternative), change yourself to accommodate your interlocutor’s style, or explain to the other party the affect his or her style has on you and leave it there and see if that will alter the other party’s behavior in relation to you.
Conflict = inherently bad?
In reviewing some of my past negotiations I have begun to realize that I have always considered conflict with others inherently bad. To this end, I go to great measures to maintain good relations, run circles to avoid hurt feelings and confrontation, and judge others who thrive on conflict as lesser than those who manage to avoid it.
Slowly, I am realizing that conflict is not necessarily bad. Conflict can be the means of achieving fairness. Conflict can distribute justice. Through conflict, parties can come to a better place than each could not its own.
The more important issue is how conflict is handled. There are inherently bad and good ways to conflict, and conflict itself is more a given. With this realization I have slowly begun to shift skills-building from learning to better avoid conflicts (which is my natural tendency) to learning to engage conflict – but in the best manner possible.
When Doors Close
Today I received an e-mail from my first host organization in Turkey stating that they cannot accommodate me this fall as they just gave my desk to another intern. I was scheduled to leave for Turkey in two weeks! The travel agent was about to issue my ticket. I had already alerted contacts and friends of my arrival date. I had found an apartment. Someone was meeting me at the airport. But without a host organization, I could not go.
Two months ago, I thought I had secured a place at this organization through e-mail correspondences. I had followed the procedures expected for a U.S. NGO. But suddenly, after all the planning, the effort and then the agreement, the door had closed.
I was struggling with what to do because thus far in the life I have been lucky to have had few doors closed on me – and even then harder work or more persuasion usually re-opened them eventually. In this case, I went to my parents for sympathy. But instead of sympathy, my mother, who had lived in both Tanzania and Kenya said that doors closing is the daily experience of living in Africa and likely parts of Turkey as well. The moment you step on the continent you are faced with unexpected debacles: the car you were supposed to take across the country doesn’t work, the person you were supposed to meet has moved on, the house you were supposed to stay in has been taken by another family etc.
In other words, get used to it.
As I thought about the lost opportunity and my dejection in reaction to this one instance, it made me wonder, if this was the experience of my mother – a foreigner – just temporarily living in the land of closing doors, what must be the experience of those who are born and grow up there? How must locals deal with daily disappointments?
Given my privileged experiences to date, I thought about how shocked I would be when I began my travels. Upon my arrival, I would have to watch locals to see how they honed the skills necessary for reacting to and rebounding from each shut door.
Perhaps this instance should serve as a learning moment. What skills could I use to rebound from this news?