Conversation Gets A Bit Rocky? Switch To A ‘Meta’-Conversation

How often have you been in what starts as a fairly innocuous discussion or conversation but then find a divergence of views begins to send things down a rockier path? What you had expected to be a routine or even casual discussion moves slowly but steadily to a mini-debate and then progresses towards an argument.

Suddenly you find yourselves trying valiantly to get your viewpoint across to the other and every attempt seems to meet with resistance – on both sides. Logical, rational qualifiers are put forward only to be slapped down with an equally logical yet contradictory viewpoint. Tension is beginning to creep in, frustration slowly builds in the stomach or chest area. ‘Why don’t they seem to get it’ is the internal dialogue on both sides.

Believe it or not, you actually have a choice at this point. You can either continue the conversation-stroke-argument further or instead, you can decide to switch gears and go for what I term a ‘meta’ conversation.

‘Meta’ from Greek is a prefix which means ‘about’ or ‘beyond’. So when the going starts to get tough in a conversation or discussion it’s time to switch to talking instead about how you are talking to each other.

Here’s how you might move from a conversation that’s getting difficult to a meta-conversation:

1. Don’t wait too long. Once you start to feel emotions beginning to rise – either your own or the other persons, it might be time to consider shifting the direction the conversation is going in. The aim is to move from the actual content and nuts and bolts of the topic being discussed to how you are discussing it, the effect this is having on each of you and how this could be resolved.

2. Name and describe the contrasting viewpoints that are arising the discussion: ‘John, it sounds like we’re thinking differently about this. If I’m reading you right, you don’t want to have the meeting on site with all the managers attending whereas I think they have to be there’

3. Use a neutral, tentative and non-threatening tone and avoid labelling either your own or their behaviour. So rather than ‘Looks like your’e getting a bit edgy with all this, why not calm down’ go for ‘Looks like both of us have a strong view on this’

4. Watch your pace and slow down – in the heat of discussion and enthusiasm to get their point across, people speed up in their thinking and how fast they speak. They also start to breathe more shallowly and lose the bigger picture focus. A mindset of wanting to ‘win’ the argument can easily take over. So take a few deep breaths, slow down your speaking, try to relax any tension in your body and you will find the other person will pick up on this and slow down too.

5. Give them space to respond and get a sense of whether they are in agreement with how you have described things. If they continue to get into the content of the argument, don’t get drawn back in yourself. Instead, reflect back to them what you’ve just heard them say ‘Yes, John, I can see you take this very seriously. As far as you are concerned, it will make a big difference to the content of the meeting whether the managers attend or not and you feel that is crucial’. Continue to reflect back their views until they are agreeing with how you have captured it. At this point then, you can highlight again that you see both of you finding it hard to move forward.

6. Express a mutually positive intent: As well as naming the fact that you see things differently, it is important to let them known you have a positive intent with regards to ensuring that you both getting it sorted out without causing ill feeling on any side.

7. Pose the crucial question: Suggest that each of you consider the following: ‘Why don’t each of us take a minute to think through and then explain to the other what is most important to them and why, about how this situation gets resolved’. Your tone in posing this task is essential. It requires an attitude of openness, curiosity and genuine interest. Any kind of interrogatory, sarcastic or smug tone will completely undermine how much the other person will engage and drill down into what it is they really need.

8. Invite suggestions and brainstorm ways forward: When each of you have articulated what is most important and why, then you can pose another question: ‘How could we go about meeting your need for x and my need for y’. If the needs continue to be incompatible then try ‘How can we find a way to make a decision around this that each of us can live with’.

Simply switching from a conversation to a meta-conversation when the going gets a bit tough will immediately shift the tone and atmosphere to a more collaborative one . This in itself is often enough to get the whole thing moving in a more positive direction.