Posted by Meg Soper, 27-05-2014

In my last blog I urged you to ‘Strap on the Seatbelt and Have the Conversation.’ But what happens when the going gets really tough? As in when the person on the other end of the conversation isn’t quite playing by your set of rules?

Fact is we need to have the tough conversations. We often resist having them because they represent an obstacle or concern that may be difficult to confront – whether it is dealing with a personal conflict, patterns of behavior, or figuring out whose version is more realistic. Failing to engage in these conversations means we are avoiding important issues, and possibly letting a problem become worse. We need to have these conversations and we need to manage them with intelligence, tact and perspective.

Sometimes it is our own rules of engagement that get in the way…not just the other person. Perhaps we get so focused on proving a point that our counterpart has no choice but to take an equally strong position on the matter. As Newton observed, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. How true is that?

The desire to solve problems is hard wired into us it seems…and so we often jump to conclusions about people’s behavior based on our own view of the world. Consider a conversation about eating habits at the family dinner table:

Mum: Madelaine, could you please eat some of your beans?

Madelaine: No. Beans are stupid. (Arms folded, looking away).

Mum: I told you not to eat so many snacks before dinner… Eat 3 beans or it’s time out.

Madelaine: Fine! (Storms off to her room, dinner unfinished, family members shocked & silent)

So what happened? I had concluded that Madelaine was being unreasonable and stubborn. I saw she wasn’t eating her beans, assumed reasons why, and took decisive action. First I diagnosed the Problem (Step 1) and took Action (Step 2). Rather than gathering a bit more intelligence on her behaviour I escalated the matter based on my assumptions by demanding compliance. So off to her room she stormed, dinner disrupted and problem unresolved. Not an optimal outcome!

I think a lot of us are hardwired to jump to conclusions based on our initial interpretation of an issue. Our typical reaction is to head for a solution based on gut feel without stopping to think about what is behind the position that someone is taking.

To increase the likelihood that our words or response will effectively address the presenting behavior, it is helpful to delay taking action until we have a chance to analyze why the person is behaving as they are. Consider an alternate scenario at the family dinner table:

Mum: Madelaine, could you please eat some of your beans?

Madelaine: No. I hate stupid beans (arms folded, looking away).

Mum: Really? You usually don’t mind beans. Why such a fuss?

Madelaine: They are too squishy. Yuk! And sides, Dad put pepper on them. I hate pepper. And last week dad said Willy (brother) didn’t have to eat his beans. So no fair I have to eat mine!

Mum (with sideward glance to father): so if I cook them less, lose the pepper, and make sure your brother eats his, then will you eat your beans?

Madelaine: Yup.

  1. I will admit being prone to occasionally overcooking a vegetable. Sometimes there’s a yellow police tape around them. Anyway, the second scenario involves a couple of added steps to find out what issues lay below the surface. Those four steps involve diagnosing theProblem (Step 1), understanding Why (Step 2), figuring out Options (Step 3) and establishing an Action Plan (Step 4) to avoid the problem in future . It takes more work, but it has a few advantages. For one it helps to promote understanding. It takes the focus off the stated position (will not eat beans), creating the opportunity for productive dialogue, and hopefully arriving at a resolution. The conversation will focus on tackling the problem – rather than tackling the person.

We are often advised to trust our intuition and go with our instincts. But this can be dangerous especially when we are dealing with personal relationships. When our instincts are wrong feelings will get hurt, and relationships will get damaged.

If the other person is being positional, taking a moment to diagnose the underlying motives opens a new set of opportunities. While a daughter refusing to eat beans is not at face value a high stakes situation, we are still talking about relationships. And the example shows that until we more carefully examine why someone is behaving in a particular way we cannot know with certainty what is truly motivating the behavior.

This strategy really works. Bean there…done that.

About Meg Soper

Meg Soper is a leading motivational humorist for organizations in North America. Her unique perspective combines the insights and experiences of her last thirty years spent as a Registered Nurse, stand-up comedian, and ultimately a motivational speaker. Meg has co-authored two books and appeared on the CBC Television network, Women’s Television network, and Prime TV as well as on radio and at comedy festivals.