Threshold Conversations: Advice from Mentors

Last week nearly 40 people joined my colleague Kande McDonald and I for the first of two webinars: “Four Steps to Transforming Difficult Conversations into Threshold Conversations.” Our approach opens up a choice at the moment when our reaction to a charged conversation makes us want to defend ourselves. That discomfort is telling you that there’s something meaningful and important right in front of you. On Tuesday (May 13), we’ll consciously take a step across the Threshold into new, shared territory by listening and asking.

Strong feelings and confusion or uncertainty rush front and center in these conversations. Those who joined us said so again, emphatically. The hard fact is, there’s no simple solution. Our mentors know this.

At a panel discussion I attended recently, Doug Stone, an author of Difficult Conversations, said, “People call us all the time and say, more or less, ‘I want you to teach me how to get them – some person or group – to change their minds.’ And what we say, more or less is, ‘That’s not what we do.'” Some of those prospective clients want to hear more. Some don’t.

“What we can do,” Stone says, “is help people talk to each other.” Outcomes of talking are not sure. The uncertainty we feel is built in. But it’s likely that without dialogue, the outcome will be yours or mine but certainly not ours. We’re indebted to what we have learned from Difficult Conversations. Stone, Patton, and Heen would probably say the confusion emerges because we’re having three conversations at once: one about facts, one about feelings, and one about identity.

Uncertainty and confusion about facts. Really!

As a starting point, the facts discussion should be easy to resolve. It’s not. Underlying the authors’ ideas is the long shadow of Chris Argyris. He may be best known for describing the ways we talk at cross purposes. Our minds excel at making inferences and Argyris described how.  In our webinar, we introduced you to the work of David Rock and his insights about the brain functions tuned through evolution to make us adept at drawing inferences. Their purpose is to ensure we “minimize danger and maximize reward.”

But our conclusions about potential threat are at the top of the ladder of inference. In an instant, we select some information from what we observe, make sense of it, make assumptions based on it, attribute meaning and respond with feelings, which in turn tend to reinforce our existing beliefs about the world. And we are moved to take action based on this mostly unconscious climb up the ladder. Meanwhile, the person you’re talking to is subject to the same ascent from an event to conclusions.

What we’re talking about when we’re talking about facts

Most conversations about facts are really conversations about what we’ve concluded from the facts we selected. You can already see the problem. Making the task more difficult, between observation and conclusions, we layer on meaning and emotions. And you already know that human beings are attached to meaning and feelings.

This inner dynamic isn’t just a clever abstraction. It’s why deals succeed or fail, why teams are more or less effective, and why past success doesn’t prevent a new role from becoming an hour-by-hour ordeal. Leaders who aren’t willing to investigate their inner life of thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs will find the way forward harder. That’ why we’re committed to helping leaders raise their self-awareness. It provides the kind of insight that makes them better able to manage the inner world that shapes and sometimes controls day-to-day action.

A closer look at the Threshold

See whether emotions in Threshold Conversations trigger inferences in you:

Judgments: “If you were really a supporter, you would have recommended me for promotion.”

Attributions: “You were trying to undercut me.”

Characterizations: “You are so self-serving.”

Problem solving: “The answer is for you to send me a weekly report detailing your actions.”

Based on Difficult Conversations. See the chapter, “The Feelings Conversation.”

I first read Difficult Conversations four years ago and thought it was good advice. Reading it again, I can see that time, experience, and learning have made the approach more accessible and practical. If you read it now and find it hard going, I recommend the chapters on the three conversations. Then, make a commitment to read it again in a year or two.

In the meantime, do what you can to step across the Threshold. Your discomfort is telling you that there’s something meaningful and important right in front of you.

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