Chances are, you’ve been engaged in "fake talk" at one point or another. Maybe you had a meeting or conference call that left you slightly more confused than before. Perhaps you had a conversation with your co-worker and either sensed he had no intention of helping you with your request or blew up at you. If you’ve ever communicated with someone and not gotten the results, clarity, or respect you want, you know how frustrating it can be.
People engage in such "counterfeit conversation" for a variety of reasons, says John R. Stoker, founder of Springville, Utah-based organizational development firm DialogueWORKS, LLC and author of Overcoming Fake Talk: How to Hold Real Conversations that Create Respect, Build Relationships, and Get Results. They may wish to avoid conflict or difficult conversations, be unsure of themselves or their knowledge, or fear the ramifications of their words. Stoker says the problem with all of that dancing around the point is that what needs to be said often isn’t. Here are five ways to get to the heart of the matter—no matter what it is.
When you have something important to say, avoid the euphemisms and corporate-speak. Instead, state upfront specifically what you want to talk about. Stoker says often people project their own emotions and fears on to a conversation, instead of looking at the topic objectively. For example, a leader might say she or he needs to talk about general productivity challenges instead of stating that the team needs to address the actual reasons deadlines aren’t being met because the former might cause hurt feelings.
"If you think there will be negative ramifications for really talking about what’s important around a project or a process, you have to challenge yourself and have courage, saying, ‘I don’t know if this is really going to happen,’" he says. "So maybe there’s a chance if I tell this person what I’m really thinking and what I need, it won’t go badly."
Different people have different motivational hot points, says leadership consultant Shawn Kent Hayashi, founder of The Professional Development Group, LLC, a Center Valley, Pennsylvania, consultancy. Hayashi says some people are motivated by factors like money, achievement, altruism, and others. Once you zero in on your counterparts’ motivation points, you can focus in on those points.
"If you’re speaking to someone who is motivated by altruism, the more you can clue in to how this assignment or this company solves problems, and the more I can help this person see that the fingerprints they’re putting on the projects are helping people, the more effective our conversation is going to be," she says.
State your expectations and ask for feedback. Set the ground rules at the start of your conversation by stating that you want to get to solutions, Hayashi says. Letting others know that they should feel free to communicate honestly, too, opens the pathways to more effective communication.
When you’re speaking honestly and directly, it’s important to be mindful of emotions, Stoker says. While you don’t want to project your fears about an emotional outburst onto the conversation, be mindful that it is possible and look for clues about what that means. If someone says, "You’re not letting me finish my sentences!" it could be a clue that the other person is not feeling like you’re listening.
"We’re not used to tuning our ear to listening to people’s emotional reactions, to hear their whiny, blamey, complaining stories from a perspective of, in their own mind or from their own perspective, they’re interpreting your behavior negatively and [it’s] violating a value they have," he says.
If you’re going to engage in frank discussions, you need to be prepared to hear feedback that you might not like. If you begin feeling defensive, be mindful of that and keep it in check. Too often, our own pride or ego doesn’t let us get past what other people are saying. Ask yourself: Is engaging in a conflict that doesn’t matter going to get you to the goal you wish to meet?
Stoker recounts the anecdote of a reader who got offended when his mechanic made a minor joke at his expense. The reader stormed out of the place of business, but then realized that he was doing so at his own detriment—he needed work done on his car. He went in, apologized for his overreaction and the work got done. The relationship with the mechanic also led to him meeting a top executive the reader had been trying for months to reach for his work. You never know where respect and strong communication will lead you.