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Park your ego at the door

Liza van Wyk
07 August 2008 Marketing Web

Crucial conversations often fail because we consider our own agenda before addressing the fears behind other people's bad attitudes. Liza van Wyk, CEO of AstroTech, offers tips on getting the best results from tricky communications.

‘Park your ego at the door' should be the sign before every crucial conversation and tricky negotiation - without sensitivity to the damage ego can do, wars are launched, divorces are set, strikes are waged and lives are lost.

"We forget how many emotional triggers we may carry until something a sales assistant says, or a work colleague or our partner comments on, raises our hackles and sees us sail forth into a tirade or dismissive remark, we later regret," says Liza van Wyk, CEO of management training company, AstroTech.

"Look at the very high divorce statistics globally where one in three people who promised to remain with their partner through thick and thin, throws up their hands and walks away. And the amount of terrible conflict and suffering that could have been avoided if those who went to negotiating tables had open agendas and keen listening skills as well as diplomatic conversational abilities.

"South Africa's multi-party negotiations were called miraculous," Van Wyk says, "but what they really were, were parties prepared to sink ego, avoid public grandstanding and understand the fears and hopes that motivated each side and to find compromise or consensus positions."

Van Wyk's company AstroTech offers a course giving delegates the skills to hold difficult discussions. "We've taken input from a wide range of new thinking and practical experience here and abroad that highlight the importance of effective dialogue," Van Wyk says.

Management guru Stephen Covey says, "There are a few defining moments in our lives and careers that come from crucial or breakthrough conversations where the decisions made take us down one of several roads, each of which leads to an entirely different destination." He says that such conversations succeed if it is not about ‘my way' or ‘your way' but finding ‘our way.'

Covey says: "They produce what Buddhism calls the middle way - not a compromise between two opposites on a straight-line continuum, but a higher middle way, like the apex on a triangle. Because two or more people have created something new from genuine dialogue, bonding takes place."

The course is partly inspired by a book by US management trainers, 'Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when stakes are high' by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler, who define a crucial conversation as one where the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong.

In a business, difficult discussions usually take place around wage talks, performance assessments, safety, productivity, diversity, quality and other hot topics such as sexual harassment.

In the family it might be issues around fidelity, sexuality, values regarding the raising of children, difficult teens or finances. In politics it can be anything from service delivery to the performance of politicians to negotiations to end conflict, build economies, fight crime or stimulate a sense of belonging.

Research by marriage counsellors Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman, as an example, show that couples tend to fall into one of three camps during heated discussions: those who digress into threats and name-calling; those who revert to silent fuming and those who speak openly, honestly and effectively.

And to force a person or group to conform to your position never works. As English novelist, Samuel Butler said: "He that complies against his will is of his own opinion still." It's the old, you can take a horse to water but you can't make him drink syndrome.

So how do you get negotiation to take place with a real chance of a constructive outcome?

Before you open your mouth consider:

· What do I really want for myself?
· What do I really want for others?
· What do I really want for the relationship?
· How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

We should engrave those words on our tongue. If you're still battling, try this, clarify what you want and what you don't want - link the answers with ‘and': it carries your solution and a clue to how you need to behave.

Look for mutual purpose in the conversation. And always be respectful, as Patterson and company write: "Respect is like air. If you take it away it's all people can think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose - it's now about defending dignity."

They note that a wise and self-aware prayer is this: "Lord help me forgive those who sin differently than I." They give the example of a hotly contested strike where the arbitrator sends employers and strikers to different rooms and asks them to write their goals for the company on flip chart paper. They then swap rooms and looking at the other side's goals - which are inevitably identical to theirs - they use the other side's goals to find ways to achieve the change the other side desire.

Perhaps we should do the same with those negotiating the impasse in Zimbabwe.