How many unresolved conversations, have you had over the past week? You know, the kind that you walk away from feeling dissatisfied, angry, or confused? Chances are you've had at least one, which can lead to resentment, ongoing miscommunication and damaged relationships. Whether at work or at home, it's important to focus on problem-solving conversations.
What is a problem-solving conversation?
In a problem-solving conversation, each participant has a specific need or clearly-defined desired outcome. It means separating emotions from issues and focusing on the tangible problem that needs to be solved, rather than trying to resolve intangible feelings. This doesn't mean that you discount feelings. In a problem-solving conversation you’re still mindful of the other person’s feelings, wants and needs; you simply shift the conversation to focus on the desired, mutually beneficial, outcome.
Factor in feelings, but don’t lead with them
Challenging emotions and feelings are an indication of an unmet need. For example, if you’re angry that your employee Anita is chronically late for an important weekly meeting, her actions are not meeting your expectations. This unmet need can lead to feeling helpless (fear), disrespected (anger) and disappointed (sad).
It’s normal to have these feelings when someone is late. However, staying stuck in feelings of stress or strong emotions overloads our brain and puts us in survival mode. This means that the thinking part of our brain, also called executive function, essentially shuts down. Without executive function we can’t make the most of our communication skills or regulate our emotions optimally. Our nervous system goes on high alert and the messages we send through our words and body language may trigger others to unconsciously go on high alert and become defensive.
Set boundaries and solve for issues
Misunderstandings often occur because of unwritten and unspoken rules that we have regarding how other people behave, or how they should treat us. The first step is to examine our own unwritten rules and determine if they are reasonable. Do we expect our employees to arrive promptly, or even early to meetings, 100% of the time? Traffic, illness and unexpected delays happen, so it's reasonable to expect that an employee may be late every once in a while.
If lateness is a pattern, then it’s important to set boundaries and state your expectations, including clearly-defined outcomes. Schedule a specific 1:1 time with Anita where you ask questions about the specific behaviour, rather than making assumptions. “ I’ve noticed that you haven’t been able to make it to the weekly meeting on time for the last two weeks. Can you share what's going on that's preventing you from being on time?”
Anita may open up about challenges that are affecting her schedule, and you can then problem-solve together. If Anita simply shrugs or comes up with excuses, then it's crucial to clearly outline your expectations of future behaviour and consequences for not conforming, such as impact to her performance review. It's important that both parties understand the plan and required steps to resolve the issue by the end of the meeting.
Stay calm and consistent
Prior to the next weekly meeting, focus on calm, deep breathing and if anxious thoughts or angry feelings come up, simply acknowledge them and let them pass. If Anita is late again, resist the urge to chastise her in front of others or take it personally. Before returning to the rest of your day, ensure you have cleared any feelings of anger or disappointment.
Recognize that Anita’s pattern for lateness has nothing to do with you and that you are not responsible for fixing an issue that only she can solve. Remain firm in the boundaries you have set, since you have clearly stated expectations and implemented any consequences from your earlier discussion.
Keep in mind that changing your behaviour and interactions may create an emotional response in others. If emotional behaviours arise, continue using boundary-setting language, reinforce expectations and shift from emotions ("I feel upset that you're late") to expectations ("The job duties include a requirement to be on time for meetings, otherwise there will be an impact on your performance rating").
It takes time and practice to consciously steer conversations from intangible feelings mode to problem-solving mode. It’s worth the investment, as you’ll soon see the benefits that calmer and purpose-driven conversations bring. A focus on shared outcomes, rather than the blame game, can transform your relationships and ultimately, your life.