Use curiosity to trump conflict every time

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." - Albert Einstein

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When I train people on coaching skills, one of my favorite discussions is about the value of expressing keen interest in your coachee. To put a finer point on it, a successful communicator expresses a keen interest in the coachee’s thinking.

Communication is a two-way blah-blah-blah.

Communication is derived from the intention "to commune," i.e. to interact. Thus my frequent use of the two-way street analogy.

I once coached a colleague on dealing with a peer. Their work was interdependent. Her peer would make decisions that made things worse, and without consulting my colleague. I coached her to ask good questions of her peer like:

  • Tell me more about what brought you to that decision?
  • How do you see that playing out given our project plan?
  • What result are you expecting given that choice?

My buddy gave me a beautifully human response to this coaching. She said, "Mary, I am not asking her those questions. I don't care about her answers. I just want her to do what I want her to do."

How our communication habits fail us

I told her mustering up just a smidge of sincere interest goes a long way. I also suggest replacing the world "interest" with "curiosity" if that helps.

While working with a client a few months ago, I ran across a similar reaction. I asked him to role-play with me, to try out some of those "keen interest" questions. I played the role of his colleague. He asked me about the issue at hand like this: "Why on earth would you do that?"

Excellent first try. Increase the genuine curiosity and decrease the judgment and you've got a winner. I know it's hard.

“Just do it my way. It’ll save time.”

I'm reminded of this message I saw on a sign at a gift shop. A family member pointed out that the message fit me really well. I got the message. Despite all my excellent training and practice, I have my own hot topics for which I am not interested in your answers either.

I ignored my "keen interest" advice one time when I was sure an employee just needed to hear what I had to say. He appeared to have deliberately embarrassed me. I was not interested in his side of it. As an HR manager it was not smart to lose my cool, for so many reasons. It only took once for me to learn my lesson. As a coach, manager and communicator, it’s important to keep track of the topics that raise your blood pressure. Keep yourself out of the hot water I got myself into.

An alternative: Have a conversation about the conversation

That's basically what these curiosity questions lead up to -- a deeper conversation. They're a good start. Yet, there are times when they may not create a breakthrough.

My colleague could muster keen interest and ask her peer those questions and still not get anywhere. Another option is having a conversation about the conversation. This is not for the faint of heart. Yet if you are going to grow your skills you may have to give it a try.

For my colleague with the rogue peer, she could simply say, “I've noticed that we agree on a plan, and then you change things without telling me. I don't want that to happen any more. What should we do?” Then stop talking. Remember, in this type of situation, I'm big on saying only 2 sentences and a question. Then stop talking.

I get it. You may not want to hear the answer to that question you just asked. You may need to prepare for a variety of responses. You may need to stretch yourself. You may need to show some keen interest and commune to move forward.

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