Do you finesse — or just frustrate?

I witnessed a painful (to me) conversation between two male colleagues I admire. I’d been asked by Colleague A to attend a meeting between the 3 of us as we all serve on a committee together. I asked him the purpose of the meeting and he told me what he wanted to discuss.

During the exchange, I winced as Colleague A called Colleague B on the carpet for a promise B made to A about our project. He recounted a conversation they’d had 18 months ago, to which B said he had a different memory. It had little to do with the stated purpose of our discussion, so I tried to bring them back to focus.

I’ve observed both these men finesse difficult conversations adroitly. Yet this time they both succumbed to expressing their dissatisfaction with each other. I was as frustrated as they were with the interaction.

Afterwards, I thought of some ways anyone could finesse a contentious conversation:

  • Be clear on your communication goal. When the conversation strays, bring it back to purpose. Don’t bring up extraneous topics.
  • Avoid dredging up past perceived slights. They, most likely, have a different memory or interpretation of events. It only gets the other person defensive and communication dissolves.
  • Don’t engage a colleague when you are still feeling the emotion. Colleague A admitted to me afterward he was upset with B and felt he should let him know. I disagreed, as I thought that sidetracked accomplishing the purpose of the discussion. If you feel you need to air your dispute with someone, do it in a separate conversation.
  • Work to not blame or insult the other person. This should be common sense, but these accomplished, educated men fell victim. It just closes down any useful discussion and gets you labeled as a jerk and shunned from future involvement.
  • Be conscious of your tone of voice. When you raise your voice it sounds like you’re yelling, which is far from professional nor effective, and only stirs up the other.
  • Work to inquire about steps toward a solution, not lambaste what you think has been stupid decisions. Ask, “Is there a way to possibly…?” “How could I facilitate your…?” “What do you think the possible solution could be?”

The key to finess is to be conscious before and during the conversation. If you aren’t aware of what you want to accomplish then it’s easy to fall prey to emotional triggers that derail the discussion.

What items could you add to the above list?