Our lives are made up of the relationships we have. None of us is an island unto ourselves. We need others. Our brains are actually wired for collaboration. We get rewarded with serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, every time we collaborate. And when our lives flourish, we live collaboratively within intimate relationships, communities, and with the greater world. Our relationships are built upon and fed by the conversations we have. Conversations, in this case, aren't just verbal. We're having a conversation, for example with our civic body when we don't vote. We're in conversation with our circle of friends when we're engaged and even when we're disengaged. And a lot of what we don't say in a relationship fashions how we relate. In each case, it's really the quality of our conversation that impacts who we are and the impact we can have in the world.
Stop Assuming and Start Designing
The main reason conversations breakdown is that we go into them with too many assumptions. We assume, for example, that we know what the other person wants and needs from the conversation and that they know what we want and need. Sometimes this works, but often times, conversations, especially the important ones--the one's about a shared future, about how to handle a difficult situation, or past resentments--end in breakdown or leave us feeling off or incomplete. Mostly the reason why we're left incomplete from the conversation is that we never designed it or set an intention for it in the first place.
It doesn’t work to leave these conversations to chance, to just wing it. When we design our significant conversations before we have them, we create the possibility to collaborate and to get to completion. A designed conversation is one in which both people have agreed to the parameters of the conversation before entering into it. By the way, the design doesn’t end once the conversation gets underway. It is constantly being re-negotiated. That way the structure remains fluid.
It may seem a bit artificial, at first, to initiate a design with someone in the beginning or even in the middle of an ongoing conversation, however, the results are powerful, magical, and pivotal to any enduring relationship. It's an incredibly powerful way for conversations to go somewhere, to have impact. A pre-designed conversation creates a structure where both people can feel safe. It's also a structure that is flexible enough where both people can take risks, to not skip over hard-truths or filter themselves.
Below you will find a 6- Point Plan on how to design a conversation:
Designing a Conversation
STEP 1: Get Clear About the Situation
First ask yourself the following four questions:
- What am I noticing about the situation? What do I notice the issue to be? What is my perspective?
- How do I feel about what I see? Do I feel mad, sad, glad, inspired?
- What do I really want/need?
- What am I willing/not willing to do?
STEP 2: Go Back to Step 1
Don't engage in the conversation until you're clear on the 4 questions above.
STEP 3: Invite
Start the discussion by inviting the person to a discussion. Don't just spew on them. Give them a choice. You might say: I am noticing "x" coming up for me, and I'd really like to be able to speak about it with you. When can we speak about this? And where would you like to meet?
By the way, it helps to meet in a neutral space, one where neither of you is at an advantage or disadvantage. It can also be helpful to walk and talk--which is disarming--versus to sit face-to-face--which can be confrontational.
STEP 4: Design the Conversation
Before the conversation gets going, initiate the design by asking and speaking into the following questions:
- What would you like to get from the conversation? What I expect is...
- What exactly do you need and want from me? What I want from you is...
- How do you want me to be with you if you become shut down, hurt, angry, and/or sad? How I want you to be with me is…
- What could I say or do that would really support you in this conversation? What would really support me is…
STEP 5: Keep Redesigning
Once the design is set, stick with the agreements you made in the fourth point. If you need to alter the design, say, so. Be as explicit about the design of the conversation as you possibly can be. Do not assume. Do not assume. Do not assume.
STEP 6: Get to Completion
All conversations are seeking completion. When a conversation is complete, we know and feel it. Nothing more needs to be said. All that is left between you and the other person is love and affinity. And when a conversation feels incomplete, we can sense that, too. If, on the first round, you're still left incomplete, go back to the four questions on #1. Keep repeating all 6 steps until you get to completion.