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This week my management course began with an awkward 60 seconds of silence while pairs of students looked each other in the eye. As an INTJ, I expect that I have an atypical degree of comfort with silence compared to the average American adult. It's the thinker in me, the strategist who's constantly brainstorming and problem solving and crafting new ideas to a soundtrack of quiet. My insatiable thirst for knowledge has made me an excellent listener--I'm typically very attentive, engaged, and genuinely interested in understanding different perspectives on the topic of discussion. However, my cozy familiarity with the absence of sound was no help in this exercise as there was no verbal exchange of information or expression of ideas; all I was allowed to do was stare into the pupils of a virtual stranger without smiling or laughing from the uncomfortable intimacy of the task. Forcing yourself to have a focused connection with another person under the weight of wordlessness is a particularly difficult challenge, especially for an introvert. I don't think a minute has ever felt like such a long time to me before.

Active Listening Skills: Being an Empathetic Listener
I would say that being an empathetic listener is one of my greatest strengths as an individual and a professional. Many of the skills involved in active listening are traits inherent to my personality type: being quiet, reflecting, interpreting, probing for more information or clarification, summarizing and synthesizing new information. On the other hand, there are some areas where I know I can improve, such as giving feedback or expressing support. Often when my analytical mind is at work processing new information during the course of conversation--especially if the information is particularly important or overly technical--I tend to have an "angry resting face" which is why I try to make an extra effort to be non-verbally expressive in conversations with people I don't know well. This includes nodding and saying "uh-huh" (perhaps a little too often) while maintaining good eye contact to show that I'm focused on the speaker and interested in what they are saying.

I remember one time during a job interview, the interviewer sitting across from me jokingly commented to another interviewer, who wasn't present in the room but had called in on the conference room phone, that I made great eye contact with the conference phone's speaker every time I responded to her questions! In class this week, I noticed that during our small group listening/speaking exercise we all broke eye contact much more during our turns as speakers than as listeners. As for myself, I do try to look the person I'm speaking to in the eye but the challenge is that whatever I look at is where my mind goes so when I make eye contact I focus more on the listener's facial expressions than on what I'm trying to say. If only I could imagine that my thoughts resided right between my listener's eyebrows instead of floating around somewhere in the top right corner of the ceiling then I could at least fake it!

Difficult Conversations: Achieving Effective Communication When It's Hard to Talk
Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila HeenGiven the choice to confront an interpersonal disagreement or avoid it, I admit I tend to avoid it 9 times out of 10. I'm non-confrontational, always have been, mainly because I feel like the signal between my brain and my mouth has pretty spotty reception. It can be difficult for me in some situations to rapidly sort through my messy mental processes in order to verbalize my thoughts without prior reflection time. Consequently, I default to the silent treatment in times of conflict, which I am well aware is highly counterproductive coping mechanism. Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen provides empowering guidance in navigating fear- and anxiety-inducing interactions in more productive ways.

The book outlines how every difficult conversation actually involves three different conversations: 1. What happened? (i.e., the facts can depend on point of view), 2. Feelings (i.e., they matter more than I want to admit), and 3. Identity (i.e., grappling with threats to, and changes as a result of difficult conversations). Exploring each of these components was really fascinating. I feel like having this road map through uncomfortable interactions has given me a new perspective on the role I can play in leading the conversation towards a positive result. This knowledge has given me a small boost of confidence, though by no means eliminated the fear and anxiety that accompanies any attempt to assert myself by confronting a situation that I'd rather avoid. That's not the goal of the book though, as the authors state in the introduction:

"Eliminating fear and anxiety is an unrealistic goal. Reducing fear and anxiety and learning how to manage that which remains are more obtainable. Achieving perfect results with no risk will not happen. Getting better results in the face of tolerable odds might. And that, for most of us, is good enough. For if we are fragile, we are also remarkably resilient." (xxi)

And that, my friends, is some sound and very practical advice, the likes of which you will find populating this book throughout! I definitely recommend giving Difficult Conversations a read. I can see myself revisiting this book again and again throughout my career.

TOPICS COVERED:
#1 - Individual Differences: Understanding Myself and Others (MBTI Types + Keirsey Temperaments)
#2 - Communicating Verbally with Others

NEXT TOPIC: #3 - Hiring and Firing: Difficult Conversations