(Influential Leadership) Master Clarifying Conversations

Conversing In Nature
Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

How much of your leadership success depends on your ability to skillfully relate to others? Whether it’s the relationship with your clients, senior management, staff or co-workers, your ability to effectively communicate and master key relationships could arguably be the most important component of your success and fulfillment.


Relationship Cancer


Assuming this is true, there’s a “cancer” of relationships that we all need to be aware of. I’m not sure what to call it, but let me give you some of the symptoms that often follow this progression:


  1.  Misunderstandings and communication mishaps – For example, someone says something at a meeting and you’re not sure what they mean. It could be interpreted to mean something negative or it may mean something else, you just don’t know.
  2. Assumption of motive- Based on what someone says or doesn’t say or what they do or don’t do, you interpret some kind of negative intent (e.g., they don’t care, they don’t like me, they’re unhappy with my performance, they’re out to get me, etc.). It’s called “mind reading”. An example of where this can happen is if a prospect or client is not returning your phone calls and you come up with a negative interpretation of what this means.
  3. Relational tension – A misunderstanding, followed by an assumption of bad intent will often result in some sort of relational tension, or even conflict. In our professional culture, conflict isn’t usually expressed as outright war (although sometimes it is), but is often more subtle – ranging from avoidance behaviors to more passive-aggressive ones. More times than not, this relational tension is only experienced by one person in the relationship. The other is often unaware there is even a problem!


Take this test:

For one day notice how many incidences of misunderstandings, assumption of motives, communication gaps and relational tension occur around you. The results will astound you.


In my observation, relationship problems (small and large) are prevalent in the business world and, tragically, most of these problems are the result of two people “missing each other” rather than the existence of a significant relational issue.


The result is unnecessary relational pain, sleepless nights, major distraction, high stress, dysfunctional and, even, broken relationships. This dynamic also costs businesses dearly in terms of productivity, employee morale and, ultimately, revenue.


What’s The Remedy?


There are certain “truths” we incorporate over time based on our life experience. One such truth I have is this:


The quality of a relationship is directly proportional to

the amount of effective communication that exists in that relationship.


In other words, the less you communicate with someone where there is a potential misunderstanding, the greater chance that the relationship will suffer.


At the risk of making a gross overstatement, I believe there is a tool that will eliminate a significant percentage of the relational pain from our lives: the clarifying conversation.


What is a clarifying conversation? A conversation designed to clarify the intent behind the words and behaviors (or lack thereof) that have caused or have the potential of causing tension in a relationship. It’s all about killing the monster while it’s small. Before our minds make a mountain out of a mole hill, let’s verify if there really is an issue. And if there is, let’s catch it before it becomes something significant.


In my experience, I’ve found, almost without fail, that everything gets better after a clarifying conversation. If there was a misunderstanding, it can be cleared up in five minutes. If there really is an issue, I can work through it with the person and we’re better off. Even if it’s a an especially difficult issue, at least now it’s exposed and we’re dealing with it. That’s better than having an “elephant in the room” in our relationship.


However, in coaching hundreds of professionals and observing people in my life (including myself), it seems we have a natural resistance to pursuing clarifying conversations. It’s probably because we have this crazy need for self-protection and this kind of conversation can feel risky. It falls in the “it’s simple, but not easy” category.


Part of overcoming the resistance is understanding how to have this type of conversation.  I’ll get into specific strategies for this next time.


Contributed by David C MillerLearn more about influencing skills in his book:

The Influential Actuary. )


Dave’s example above of mind reading (“a prospect or client is not returning your phone calls and you come up with a negative interpretation of what this means”) took me back to a call I received from a friend years ago.


Allan told me that he had a prospect he had called twice before with no response.  He told me that he normally would not have even made the 2nd call, assuming that if the person didn’t return the call, he wasn’t interested.  But he said that he heard my voice in his head, saying to try again, and when he did, was surprised that the prospect actually picked up the phone.  The contact told Allan he had been busy, was so glad Allan called, and could he come by that afternoon to talk about some work.


There are other ‘gremlins’ like this we put on our shoulders that hold us back.

Leave a comment about others you’ve observed!

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