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The Most Important Skill

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I recently sat down to contemplate the most useful skill that I learned to help communicate with others. One in particular kept rising to the top. This skill is amazingly basic, yet almost no one does it.  Perhaps our incessant internal mental chatter and our desire to be heard makes this skill difficult to master.

Enough speculative philosophy. What is this mysterious skill about? The skill is about setting the context for a conversation. It involves some listening (remember when I called that a lost art?) and a bit of structure.

To illustrate, imagine  your colleague Ted walking over to you and starting a conversation like this:

  • “Hi Bill, about that issue you raised, blah blah blah blah blah…”
  • Ted then rants for two minutes straight about how lousy the issue tracking system is…
  • …then another two minutes about the issue you raised.

You know that the topic is about an issue you raised, but you don’t know what the conversation goal is, or how you should engage in the conversation itself.  You assume you know, and you start the dialog with Ted without validating your assumptions.  Eventually Ted walks away, and you aren’t sure what the point was.

That Ted.  He is all over the place.

Now what if that same conversation went like this (important parts in bold):

  • “Hi Bill, blah blah blah…”
  • “Ted, before we start, what is your goal for this conversation?”
  • “Oh, good point Bill. I’d like to get some closure on that issue you raised.”
  • “Great, ok. Would you like me to listen for a couple minutes, then we discuss, or do you want a back and forth?
  • “Let me vent for a minute about how lame our issue tracking system is, then we can discuss the solution.”
  • “Sounds good, Ted.”
  • <now the conversation happens>
  • “Well thank you for the conversation Ted. Did you get what you needed from our dialog?
  • “Yes I did, Bill.  Thanks.”

Look at the difference. You backed Ted up from starting a four-minute rant, clarified his goal and how he wanted to discuss things.  Then you made sure Ted met his objective. Ted probably feels like you heard him, and engaged with him; he probably has a sense of closure and completeness to the conversation.

As you can see, it is not a difficult thing to do, but it is challenging to remember to do it. Your natural response to Ted’s approach might be to scratch out your eyeballs out as soon as the rant starts. Doing so would be unnecessarily painful and blinding. Looking at it more maturely, it is a great opportunity to guide Ted into a more intentional conversation that has a meaningful outcome for you both. The result is a better and more trusting working relationship with Ted, and you get to keep your vision intact.

Exercising this skill can be very difficult, but it is well worth the effort. It works in professional conversations, and just as well in personal relationships. It takes a bit of practice to make this a very powerful tool in your arsenal.

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