I often work with people who think a business conversation is mainly a matter of telling.
Stating a position, explaining a rationale, proving you’re the expert… these are the sorts of aims they start off with.
There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. But it’s only half the story. Possibly less. Obvious as it sounds, a dialogue is two-way (or multi-way, if there are several of you). And if everyone’s only focus is to get through their own detailed agenda in exactly the way they’ve planned beforehand, the chances are that not much real communication will take place.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t prepare! Preparing for a meeting that’s based on discussion, rather than formal presentation, means planning what you could say as opposed to planning what you will say. If you suspect you are going to be asked certain questions, or will need to explain a complex idea persuasively, then spend time beforehand exploring some options. There’s always more than one approach to expressing an idea, so find the one that best suits you.
Don’t just practise trotting out the blurb on the company website. Put it your own way. And discover what that is… by rehearsing out loud. Then you have stuff you can say with confidence – if you need to.
Remember, too, that other human beings are infinitely unpredictable. A conversation rarely goes the way you’ve practised it – especially when it comes to their side of it.
And that’s where self-trust comes in. In my experience, businesspeople more often lack confidence in their own expertise than you might expect - even though it’s clear they wouldn’t be in their job at all if they really were that bad. Knowing your stuff is undoubtedly vital, but being able to trust that the right piece of that stuff will come out of your mouth when you’re under pressure can be another matter.
Self-trust and self-knowledge are some of the most useful assets you can bring to a business conversation – as long as you team them with empathy and attention for the other person. If you rehearse the kind of thing you expect to say during a conversation, you’ll be able to say it with ease at the critical moment.
But don’t be so focused on seizing that moment that you forget to listen. Really listen. If you don’t, the chances are you will get stuck, repeatedly trying to get your point across in the same way, except possibly with more volume and less patience. A bit like trying to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language. Shouting the same words over and over again is not going to help you communicate. Or, as Henry Ford put it:
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
Successful dialogue depends upon being ready to ‘play to the person’. No matter how much preparation you’ve done beforehand, to make a success of this encounter you have to be ready to respond to this human being in this moment. That means expecting the unexpected, and responding accordingly.
It’s not difficult – in fact, we do it all the time anyway. (Think about the different ways in which you already adapt your behaviour to communicate successfully in various parts of your life: with your boss, your window cleaner, your mother, your next-door neighbour, your best friend…) If you’re not getting the response you wanted, you have to try something else.
That usually means adjusting your vocal tone and body language at least as much as your verbal stratagems. Anna Darvas, a highly accomplished actor/trainer and colleague, puts it like this:
“Resistance is your cue to change your strategy”.
In other words, if the person you’re engaging with seems less than engaged, it’s time to play things differently. A subtle switch to a different style of communication does not demand a personality transplant. It asks only for flexibility in your choice of behaviour.
So if you find yourself dealing with someone who enjoys a joke, be jokey with them. If they lack confidence or optimism, be encouraging. If you’re confronted with a hard-boiled egotist, try a bit of flattery (you can always throw up afterwards).
Play to the person, and you’re far more likely to establish a wavelength that works both ways. The technical term is ‘win-win.’