Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Q. How do I make sure I start off a conversation with someone on a level playing field?

A. This is the habit and skill of checking your expectations with conversational partners prior to getting into the discussion.

I'll share an example: Say you're heading out to an appointment. Your boss calls you over to discuss a case about which she requires more information. You answer her questions as concisely and quickly as you can, because you don't want to be late for the appointment.

Has anything similar happened to you?

Here are the potential problems. In your haste, you could leave out important details. Your boss could make a critical misjudgment based on having incomplete data. Your boss could interpret your response as being evasive or unsupportive. You could resent your boss for making you late. You might have less patience for the discussion and think that she should already know the answers. These dynamics detract from the quality of your relationship and your effectiveness as a team.

The alternative is to level the playing field like this:

Boss: "What's the story with the Smith case? Why haven't they paid and why are their survey results not up to par?"

You: "I would be happy to give you those details. To cover it fully, it'll take about 15 minutes. I'm off to an appointment right now and don't want to be late. Can we meet about this later today, say 2 o'clock? In the meantime, if you just want some highlights, I can give them to you over the phone as I drive to my appointment."

To effectively level the playing field in important conversations, pay attention to three elements: 1) purpose--what you both hope to accomplish in the conversation; 2) process--expected actions and anticipated path for their completion; and 3) time--how long will this conversation take to complete?

By matching these assumptions in advance, you will avoid missteps that arise from incompatible expectations, and free both parties to focus more constructively on mutual objectives.

Tom Dardick is a managing member of The Communication Gym. He can be reached at 888-984-3496 or