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Fact + Curiosity: A Formula for Better Communication

Fact + Curiosity: A Formula for Better Communication
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This article was originally published on Coach U Insights on November 24, 2020.

Many leaders avoid having difficult conversations because they are not sure how to start them. I've developed a simple formula that applies to many if not most of those conversations. My executive coaching clients say it is one of the most useful tools I've given them and that they've learned to consistently apply it with very positive results.

In training groups of leaders to integrate coaching skills, I give each table one of these statements:

  1. You've been late to our team meeting three times in a row. Why doesn't our work matter to you?
  2. I'm tired of having to remind you to follow that process!
  3. You've come to me three times with the same issue. Do you think I'm deaf?
  4. We're having to redo the work you completed. This is the second time! Can't you do anything right?
  5. Hey, I'm trying to be helpful, but it doesn't seem like you're listening to a word I'm saying!
  6. When are you going to stop making excuses and just take some action?

I then ask them to rephrase it in "neutral language." By neutral language, I mean language that:

  • Opens conversations rather than closing conversations.
  • Promotes real dialogue rather than aggressiveness, defensiveness or shutting down.
  • Is "clean" and respectful.
  • Is without "charge" or negative emotional energy.
  • Is without judgment, blame or "making wrong."

The leaders generally laugh at the examples they're given. They can see how those statements will most likely lead to confrontation and damaged relationships. But they sometimes struggle with how to rephrase with "neutral language."

Hopefully, you can see that in the statements, the speakers already have made convincing cases to themselves that will likely generate negative and tense conversations that won't go well. And this is also why the speakers may avoid even having the conversation out of fear of conflict or escalation.

Fact + Curiosity

After going through their examples, I suggest a simple formula: fact + curiosity.

  • What is a fact? It's a fact if everyone involved would agree that it's a fact.
  • What is curiosity? It's an open attitude of perspective seeking that puts aside assumptions and has us available to really listen.

For example:

  1. You've been late to the meeting three times. What's up?
  2. I notice you haven't been following the process. Please help me understand what's getting in the way.

You can hopefully see that these statements support real dialogue. What if, in the first example, the person says, "Yes, I'm really sorry about that. I care about our work and want to be a good team player. But I've been moving my elderly parents into a long-term care facility in the mornings, and it's been hard to get back in town. It's been a really tough time for all of us, but we'll be done by the end of the week." How would you feel after hearing that if you'd already put the person into a very negative box and were angry as a result? Perhaps you were taking it personally when it had nothing to do with you.

For practice, can you rephrase the remaining four statements into neutral language?

What makes this so hard?

One reason is that our minds are set up to make up convincing and compelling stories from limited data.

Here's an example. I'm on the faculty of two coaching schools. At one of them, each module is one month in length, and a student is allowed to miss one of the four classes and still get credit. One time I saw a name on the student roster for a class. Everyone was there for the first class except for him. He missed the second class as well, so I dropped him from the course. The same thing happened a month later, and then two months after that. I wrote an indignant and very much not-neutral email to the registrar: "We shouldn't let such irresponsible people be part of this program! There was a waiting list, and he took a spot that someone else could have had! We need to have a policy that if you sign up for two classes and don't attend either one, you have to wait some period of time before you can sign up again! We can't allow this behavior!!"

The message I received back: "This is someone with a severe medical problem. He genuinely tries to attend classes, but sometimes for reasons totally out of his control he's unable to." I felt like a jerk. Here I'd disparaged this person, thrown him off the island, only to find out that he was courageous and deserves only empathy and appreciation.

We do this all the time. As soon as we have a few facts, our brains quickly put together a convincing story to support those facts, based on previous assumptions about that person, about ourselves, about life and so on. And then we have an emotional reaction based on that story. I could instead have just applied fact + curiosity: "I notice this man has signed up for three classes in a row with me and not shown up. Do you have any idea why?"

This practice invites you to catch yourself in the act and ideally do so before you've run up a head of steam in the negative way you might be holding someone else. Or, if you have already done so, ask yourself if you actually know that your story is true, and if not, see if you can hold it lightly.

Try fact + curiosity. My clients consistently share how powerful it's been for them.

Originally published by Forbes Coaches Council

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