Two rules for productive conversations

I was speaking to an eBay seller the other week, and she told me a story. She had sold an item in an auction, and before sending it off the winning bidder asked for it to be packaged in a specific way for extra safety. The seller realised this would increase her postage costs and severely dent her profit, so didn’t want to do that and told the buyer. The buyer got annoyed, and said my friend had an obligation to send her the item as she was the rightful winner of the auction.

My friend told me, “I thought about saying ‘No, if you want it packaged like that I’ll reopen the auction with the new packaging as part of the deal, and you can bid on it again.’ But I knew that wouldn’t go down well. So instead I said to her, ‘I’m happy send to you the item as I intended at the price you bid. And if you want the special packaging then just pay me the difference and I’ll send it that way.’ I was amazed that she agreed to that straight away, and without any fuss. I was even more amazed that a few days later I found she’d given me a very positive review.”

Two things happened here that I’ve seen elsewhere, in a work context, when conversations could get difficult but end up well. (1) Engaging positively, and (2) intellectual honesty.

Engaging positively is about trying to understand and recognise the other party’s point of view. It’s about saying “Yes, and…” rather than “No.”

Intellectual honesty is about enaging objectively with the content of the issue, and removing any hint of personal opposition or negative emotion towards the other party.

In a work context I’ve seen near-identical conversations go well and go poorly because people do or don’t use these two rules—for example, when someone requests some work from a software team. “No you can’t have that, you have to go through the process,” tends not to go down well. It might be intellectually honest (there’s a process to go through) but it’s the opposite of positive engagement. By contrast, “That sounds interesting, please put it through the process,” goes down better—the same intellectual honesty, but with positive engagement.

I’ve also seen examples where ideas are not treated with intellectual honesty, even though people express positivity. For example, responding to an alternative suggestion about some proposed software design: “Yes, lots of people do it that way, but my plan is best practice.” That’s superficially positive engagement, but it’s not intellectually honest, because it doesn’t address the specifics of the proposal. Instead, the proposal is rejected because it’s not labelled as “best practice”. In cases like this people generally accept the outcome (even if they’re not entirely happy with it) but the result often turns out not to be the best one for the organisation—a decision was made without a really honest analysis of the options.

Both positive engagement and intellectual honesty take some effort and practice. But when they’re both deployed, there’s a much better chance of a productive conversation and an optimum outcome.

Photo by emiana