by Chuck Wisner, author of “Conscious Conversations“
Just last week, one of my clients, Bob, a director of engineering, was yelled at in a meeting by his VP, Stuart. Bob was presenting critical engineering data when Stuart abruptly cut him off to ask why his team hadn’t hit their target. The rebuke stung Bob, who slumped in his chair, resenting the public scolding.
One of my neighbors, Becky, a mother of three little kids, had an unpleasant exchange with another neighbor, Charlie. When Becky asked Charlie when he would get some trees on their shared property line removed, he performed an about-face and barked, “How ’bout you pay for it!”
Conversations go south every day at home and work. When things go badly, we stress out, then we spin out in frustration, anger, and resentment. Most of us don’t have the tools needed to honestly acknowledge our role in creating unproductive conversations or to respectfully and humbly engage with others.
I practice a four-question formula, which I preach to my clients for just these moments. The questions allow us to step out of our emotional triggers and diagnose our thoughts. I like to think of it as “thinking about thinking.” To succeed, we must take the sometimes-painful path of reflecting on our judgments while interacting with others.
Here are questions we should ask ourselves when we start to feel a conversation spiral out of control:
Desires: What do I want? What desire is driving my discontent?
In most difficult situations, we have unconscious wants and desires. My deepest desire for my kids to be happy is upsetting when my desires don’t align with reality. That misalignment causes much human suffering.
Concerns: What are my concerns?
Our concerns are time sensitive. When I wake up at 4 a.m. worrying about my schedule, I project into the future with little chance of affecting it. We don’t want tomorrow to be like today. We don’t want to experience another argument with our boss again.
Authority: What authority or power do I have in this situation?
Power plays out in every conversation, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. When I hear a friend’s strong opinion, I may or may not respond, depending on the authority I grant their voice. When working with clients, they must accept the reality of hierarchies they work within. Upsets in family life and business can often be traced to an unhealthy unawareness of power dynamics.
Standards: What standards are shaping my opinions?
From day one, we adopt standards to live by from the culture we grow up in, from our mother religion, from our educational opportunities, from our families. Unconsciously, we live by narratives about good and evil, beauty and ugliness, fairness and unfairness, right and wrong. My father was adopted at a young age. His new father, my grandfather, was a racist. When I was very young, his words about and actions toward people of color seeped into my innocent mind. It took me years to expunge his ugly lies.
These questions can be revealing and enlightening. When we have the courage to ask them, we’re rewarded with a window into previously unconscious thoughts. Most of us have active committee members inside our heads, judging ourselves and others. These questions can short circuit our inner critic and help us become aware of our thoughts, which allows us to reconsider our conversations.
When my client Bob took the time to ask himself the questions, he discovered new truths about himself. Here’s how he answered:
Desire: He wanted to speak more assertively in meetings.
Concern: He was concerned for his team. They had done their homework, and their answers were being questioned.
Authority: Because Stuart was his boss and friend, it was easier for Bob to disappear than to speak up.
Standards: His two leadership standards were respect and tolerance, and Stuart seemed to hold neither.
After asking and answering the questions, Bob was more self-aware, confident, and intentional as he prepared for his next conversation with Stuart.
Here’s how answering the four questions helps us interact with others:
Desires: When aware of my desires, I realize the importance of asking what others want, revealing differences or commonalities that are easy to talk about.
Concerns: Awareness about my concerns helps me understand how I may have overlooked others’ concerns. That helps us build future bridges.
Authority: Understanding and accepting power dynamics is essential for healthy communication. Ask yourself if any given relationship is built on equality, hierarchy, or authority (given or taken)?
Standards: By understanding my standards, I can be curious about others’ standards, which inhabit every opinion and judgment. When surfaced, standards often present a nonjudgmental way to accept differences and discover common ground.
After asking herself these questions, Becky spoke to Charlie about her wants and concerns and asked about his. She apologized for barking at him about the trees. She simply wanted to know his plan and to know if he had concerns about the trees’ safety. Charlie admitted that he was concerned, explaining that he had consulted a tree expert to determine if the trees posed a danger. The expert said they weren’t an immediate threat, but they needed to be taken care of within the year. Charlie also explained that tree removal was incredibly expensive, and he was saving money for the removal. Becky said her family had removed ten trees at great expense years ago, then she asked him to keep her posted.
The tone of their conversation was completely transformed with help from these questions about shared desires and concerns. Becky showed humility and grace, and Charlie opened up because he felt safe.
The four questions are an effective formula for honestly expressing thoughts and feelings. No one escapes the hold of unconscious judgments without thinking about thinking. Asking thoughtful, well-intentioned questions to understand others’ opinions and feelings can transform any conversation. The four questions are universally applicable and powerful. Use them wisely.
Chuck Wisner is a highly sought-after strategic thinker, coach, and teacher in the areas of organizational strategy, human dynamics, communication, and leadership excellence. He is currently working as an advisor with leaders and their teams at major technology companies in the United States, other Fortune 200 companies, and non-profit institutions. Wisner is the author of the forthcoming book, “Conscious Conversations“.