How To Stay Open When the Stakes Are High

Here’s a scenario that you may identify with. You’re sitting across the table from someone whose support you need to move ahead with an important project. Ten minutes into the conversation, you’re blindsided by that person’s objections. 

Maybe it’s a budget proposal to your board treasurer. Or an important sales presentation. Or a conversation with your partner about moving to a new community.  Whatever the specifics, the stakes are high and you’re under pressure.

Let’s take a peek at one such scenario:

Midway through presenting an important proposal to your boss, she raises unexpected concerns about the whole thing. You’ve been working on this for quite some time.

You thought you had her support. You made some assumptions about what information she’d want to base her decision on. Unfortunately, your assumptions were wrong. She needs more information in order to decide. To make matters worse, you have a deadline to proceed with certain actions within 24 hours.

This project is important to the future of your department and you need her backing to proceed.

You can’t afford to get defensive. Even though you may be feeling tense and frustrated, the rest of the conversation needs to be handled delicately and skillfully.

Based on my own observations of skillful communication in similar situations, here’s what you can do to stay open when the stakes are high:

First, adopt a stance of openness. As soon as you notice the slightest feeling of contraction, relax, breathe, and commit to staying open.

Next, you can use this formula. It works well for any conversation but especially when there are strong emotions:

  • Listen deeply to the other person’s objections even if you don’t agree or like what you’re hearing. Do your best not to interrupt or try to rebut what they’re saying. This can take a lot of self-discipline!
  • Then, paraphrase what you heard and confirm that you got it right. Paraphrasing is a powerful way to communicate that the person has been heard. It can go a long way toward moving a conversation forward.
  • Ask powerful questions to focus attention on what needs to happen to move forward. Use future focused questions like “What’s the way forward?,” “What needs to happen to get on the same page?,” or “What would give you the confidence to support this project?”
  • Finally, highlight areas of agreement that can enable you to move forward now with parts of the proposal even if other areas require more conversation.

Try this the next time you find yourself in a high stakes conversation.

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