As a senior leader, I often ask myself how effective I am at handling conversations in an assertive – as opposed to aggressive – manner. There’s a fine line between the two.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate or unfortunate enough (depending how you look at it) to have been involved in a wide range of ‘challenging’ conversations. And over the past few years I have experienced these types of conversations at Boardroom level with increasing frequency.
In this environment conversations are far more intense due to the stakes being higher, conflicting emotions, divergent points of view and disconnected relationships. More importantly, politics, egos, professional credibility and personal impact play a significant part.
Now I would say that I have a good level of self-awareness and would define myself as having a ‘considered’ personality. I’m also a reflector – I like to stand back and look at a situation from different perspectives. So I often find myself ‘on the back foot’ during an argument or debate – I need to absorb the response, organise my thinking and then respond in a structured way.
We all know that we don’t have the luxury of thinking time when you are in the heat of the moment and everyone is waiting in anticipation to see how well you handle the ‘curveball’ or that over-zealous peer.
I would normally respond in one of two ways – back off and withdraw, or become defensive and make a less-than-considered response. Both of these behaviours certainly do not build credibility.
The best development advice I have received over the years has highlighted the importance of not changing the fundamentals of who you are – i.e. being authentic – but also having a ‘toolkit’ of communication tricks and techniques ready to draw from as the situation requires.
Over time I have developed this toolkit and have found one technique very effective in the context of challenging conversations: ask a question and clarify the response.
I’m conscious that this is not revelatory stuff – but it works!
Asking a question not only buys you thinking time, it also gets the ‘message giver’ to think about why they said something or said it in a certain way. Genuine, open questions will provoke the best responses; questions/statements such as:
- “I’m curious why you think that...”
- “That’s an interesting point of view – why do you say that?”
- “I’m not sure I understand your rationale, can you be more specific?”
Many extroverted types typically ‘talk/think/talk’ whereas others – myself included – prefer to think about what they’re going to say before they say it – ‘think/talk/think’.
I was recently asked to present at a networking lunch where I encountered someone in the audience who had a lot to say and who felt the need to draw attention to himself by asking difficult questions.
It was towards the end of the session when he asked me a derailing question. I could feel the tension in the room, everyone waiting eagerly to see how I would respond.
Ten seconds felt like a lifetime but I responded with this question:
- “How would you like me to answer your question?”
I had a fantastic outcome. The person in the audience smugly proceeded to answer his own question and I responded by saying, “I don’t think I could have offered a better response than that.” I left with my integrity and credibility intact and even managed to stroke my heckler’s ego.
So, I think I have mastered the art of buying thinking time. Now I just need to work on my body language!
Clyde Marwick is Head of Organisational Development at Baxters Food Group.
Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net