2.1 Preparing For Important Conversations

If a conversation is particularly important or complex, it’s often useful to consciously prepare for it. First of all, know why you're having the conversation, what your purpose is. Second, get your story, message, point of view or case clear in your own mind. Third, think of the impact your conversation might have on both yourself and your conversational partner and determine how you might need to prepare yourself for the conversation and what you might need to do to help the other person hear what you have to say.

Pilots, before take-off, always run through a pre-flight checklist. The same idea can be helpful when you’re preparing for an important conversation. There are three priority questions you need to ask yourself. Why am I having this conversation? What is it I want the other person to understand (the Big Point)? What can (or should) I do to put the other person in a receptive frame of mind?

a. Determining the purpose of the conversation

Consider an example. Larry is upset with Maria. She has been somewhat distant lately. Recently, when they were at a mutual friend's house for dinner, she made him the butt of a few jokes. Now, on impulse, he calls her. He has not made it clear to himself just why he is calling her. To punish her? To complain about being mistreated? To get back on track? To work things out? His failure to determine what he wants to achieve from the conversation creates a void. After a few sentences, Larry's emotions fill the void. The conversation disintegrates. Their relationship ends up in an even worse state than it was before the conversation.

If Larry had prepared, he might have said something like this to himself as to purpose: "I'm still ticked off at what Maria did and the cavalier way she did it. When I calm down, I'd like to do three things. First, I'd like to tell her how I reacted to what she said at dinner. Second, I'd like to know what was going on in her mind at the time. Third, I'd like to take stock of our relationship."

In this case Larry wants to get a number of things done. There are multiple purposes, none of which is to punish Maria.

b. Getting the main points clear in your own mind

It’s usually very helpful to get the main points you want to make clear in your own mind. Different people use different methods for doing this.

Some people think through what they want to say before the conversation, and even decide in advance how they will say it.

Others prepare by taking a moment immediately before the conversation to reflect on what it is they want to say.

Still others, think out loud. They use the conversation itself as a road to discovery. For them, clarity evolves through the dialogue.

Finally, some people realise during the conversation that they need more time to clarify for themselves what they want to say. They end up saying something like this, "What you've just said makes me realise that the point I'm trying to make is not clear enough in my own mind. Let's talk again once I've had a chance to think it through more carefully."

Whatever approach you use, your stories, messages, points of view and cases, will be understood by others only if you understand them yourself. If what you want to say is not clear in your own mind, you might begin the conversation by saying something like this: "I've got a bunch of half-formed ideas. I'd like to bounce a few of them off you to see if I can develop some clarity."

c. When necessary, making sure you (and the other person) are in the right frame of mind

Some conversations are more complicated, sensitive or difficult than others. In these cases, it can help to think ahead about the best way of approaching and conducting the conversation. You may have to prepare yourself, or your intended conversational partner. Larry wasn't in the right frame of mind to talk with Maria but he barged ahead anyhow.

Preparing yourself

Calvin wants to talk with his relatively new neighbour, Ted, about his daughter, Marjorie. She plays music very loudly whenever she’s home alone. Calvin doesn’t want to ‘squeal’ on Marjorie, nor does he want to create any bad blood between himself and Ted. But neither does he want his family subjected to endless rap music. He has talked with Marjorie a few times. She turns the music down for a while, but it's soon back to full volume. The same old story. She isn’t getting the message.

First, Calvin needs to prepare himself. He hates bringing bad news to people therefore he often suffers in silence. So he realises that he has to ‘psych himself up’ to talk with Ted. He does so by reminding himself how important this is, not just for himself, but his family. He also tells himself that it's the right thing to do. He thinks of ways of getting his message across without alienating Ted, and without indicting Marjorie.

Preparing your conversational partner

At other times, your conversational partners might not be ready to listen to what you have to say. They may be distracted. Your message might take them by surprise. They might be immersed in their own concerns. And so forth. Therefore, at times it can be helpful to reflect on how your story or message might ‘play’ with any given conversational partner. If you think there might be some difficulty but it’s still important to have the conversation, determine what you might do to put your partner in the right frame of mind.

Calvin doesn't know Ted well enough to know how he might react. After all, Ted could see Calvin's remarks as an attack on his daughter, or an insult to his own parenting skills. He opts for the ‘soft sell’, but he realises that he still has to get his point across forcefully enough to get results. "I mustn’t say it and then take it back as I often do," he says to himself. The following conversation takes place over the fence, after some opening small talk.

Calvin begins, "Ted, could I talk to you ‘off the record’, so to speak?”

Ted, looking a bit taken aback, replies, "Why sure, Calvin. What's on your mind?"

Calvin goes on, "Well, it's about Marjorie. It's a little annoyance, but I don't want to get her into hot water." He explains the situation.

Ted listens attentively, then, smiling, says, "Marjorie's a great young woman. But she's still a teenager with all the baggage that entails … Here's how I'd like to handle it. I'll be open with her. I'll tell her we've talked. And I'll make it clear that this is no way to treat decent neighbours. I'm also going to tell her about your concern not to get her into trouble. That will soften the whole thing … And what do you mean – ‘little annoyance’? We find it very annoying. You notice that we don't let it happen when we're around."

In retrospect, Calvin probably did not need to be so careful. But he was careful because he didn't know how Ted would react.

Consider another situation. Rosemary wants to talk with her sister, Nellie, and her brother-in-law, Conrad, about an upcoming family gathering at their house. The members of the family have a lot of fun at these annual affairs. For some, it’s the only time they see one another. They change the location of the gathering from year to year, but they need a house large enough to accommodate everyone.

One of Rosemary and Nellie's nephews, Brendan, who is gay, has found out within the past year that he is HIV-positive. Most family members know this by now. Brendan has become very sensitive about being rejected, especially by family members. He wants to come to the family gathering and participate fully. Nellie and Conrad have a swimming pool at their house. Recently, Brendan was ejected from a swimming pool when the owner found out that he was HIV-positive. Finally, Rosemary knows that Conrad is a bit homophobic. Rosemary mulls all of this over in her mind in preparing for a conversation with Nellie and Conrad.

Here are some of her musings.

"I guess it's best to talk with Nellie first. She and I are on the same wavelength on most things. We both know Brendan, though I'm much closer to him than she is. I can have an all-issues-on-the-table conversation with her. Understanding where Conrad stands on Brendan's participation in the reunion needs to be one of these issues. I need to find out if there's going to be any kind of problem.

"It might be good for Nellie to have a preliminary conversation with Conrad. But I want to tell her that I'm willing to have a meeting with her and Conrad, or with Conrad alone. I'm not sure whether I'm making something out of nothing. I need to discuss this with Nellie. And if she wants me to talk with Conrad, then I need her advice on how to go about it."

Rosemary is having a conversation with herself about laying the groundwork for what could be an important and sensitive conversation later on.

Having a conversation about the conversation

When it comes to preparing for conversations, it's essential to remember that the best conversations are dialogues. The other party, or parties, may well have opinions with respect to what the purpose of the conversation should be and what groundwork should be laid. Sometimes it's possible to have a conversation about the conversation before it takes place. Rosemary intends to have such a conversation with her sister. And she might need one with Conrad.

d. The economics of preparation

To sum up, when you prepare for important conversations, these simple questions can be a great help:

1. What is my purpose? What do I want to achieve through this conversation?

2. What are the main points I want to get across?

3. How do I prepare both myself, and the person I'm talking to, for the kind of conversation we're going to have?

The importance of these questions depends on the nature of the conversation. Obviously, simple conversations about relatively unimportant matters usually do not require a great deal of forethought. However, if the message is more complex, the time spent answering these questions before the conversation takes place, is often time well-spent.

Here are two situations that represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Both involve messages left by your friend Bert on your answering machine.

In the first, Bert says, "Hi. I’ll meet you in front of the theatre at 8:15 this evening. The show begins at 8:30. I'm assuming that you'll be bringing the tickets with you. Give us a ring just to confirm everything’s okay."

Responding to the message doesn’t warrant much by the way of advance thinking.

But what if the situation were more complex? Let's assume that the world changes. This time the message on your answering machine from Bert says that you’ve both been invited to a last-minute farewell party being given by Danielle, a mutual friend. Bert has decided to go and skip the theatre.

He adds, "Why don't you see if you can get rid of my ticket. If you can’t, I’ll still pay for it."

To complicate things a bit more, you decide that you, too, would like to go to Danielle’s party. But you have a friend in the cast of the play and don't want to let her down.

It's mid-afternoon. You have a few minutes to prepare for your conversation with Bert. How would you answer the four questions above? Take a few minutes to think you way through this situation.

e. Isn’t preparation the enemy of spontaneity?

Someone might say, "Come on! People don't go around preparing for conversations. That's too much logic in an illogical world. Conversations should be free-flowing. Anyway, doesn't preparing fly in the face of the uncertainty of outcome that is supposed to be characteristic of dialogue?"

What shall we say? Of course conversations should be free-flowing. But going off half-cocked in critical interpersonal situations is usually less than helpful. You will have to decide for yourself which conversations merit some degree of preparation. If people spent more time thinking about important conversations, there would be less guilt and regret after they are over.

Furthermore, preparing for an important conversation does not mean unilaterally deciding on what the outcome should be. The purpose of preparation is to do whatever you can to foster a decent dialogue, not engineer it for your own personal benefit. Therefore, if some preparation will add value to both the conversation and the relationship, do it.

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