Something I struggle with constantly is when and how to approach conversation mindfully. I work in a sales role which requires me to be engaging and communicative so this is a careful balancing act. If you’ve ever encountered one of those natural sales guys you know that we like (or at least choose) to talk.. constantly. We use speak to engage, to stall, to charm, to manipulate, to be successful in our roles. It’s not unusual for people to leave a conversation with a salesperson in awe of all the talking they did with not a lot of substance.
My background complicates this a bit. I’ve experienced a lot of dysfunctional communication and don’t always understand the value of keeping some of my well-intentioned (but destructive) thoughts and judgements to myself. I’ve harped on this idea a lot in past posts, but it’s taken a lot of years for me to understand that I can’t save or alter everyone’s path and that sometimes you gotta STFU and let someone find their way.
If you’ve ever made it to an “Anonymous” meeting, you’ve probably been exposed to the acronym “W.A.I.T.” This stands for “Wait, why am I talking?” and is a valuable conversation technique reminding us to halt our lizard brain and automatic babble and be mindful about what we are saying. It reminds us that we don’t need to speak in the heat of the moment, and it is also useful in hindsight – you know that thing we all do when we overthink the conversation afterword, in my case often with regret and criticism.
Why am I talking?
- Because everyone else is talking.
- I have an urge to talk.
- I want attention.
- In order to communicate with a purpose
- I don’t know.
Loren Ekroth, ConversationMatters.com
The old adage, “less is more”, is often true when it comes to conversation. The most memorable conversations are usually with great listeners who know what to say and when to say it. However, like everything else, this is very much a progress not perfection kind of thing.
So what do you do when you’re W.A.I.T.’ing?
First, establish that you are actually trying to add something of value to the conversation. That your intent is to be meaningful, compassionate, and truly constructive.
Next, listen. Really listen to what the other person is saying. An alarming number of people don’t do this. At some point in human evolution it seems we all got fixated on our own sense of importance, and many of us (including myself at times) get caught up in the excitement of our own words – we don’t register what the other person is contributing, we are just waiting for our turn to speak. Stop, and really take in what they are saying – ask sensitive questions to ensure that you know where they are coming from, and make sure you are really making an effort to address their point or question.
Listen first, think second, and talk last (if at all).
And finally, remember that you always have the choice of taking a pause. There are very few occasions where it is not appropriate to ask for a break to mull it over. It is okay, and I can’t stress this enough, to take a step away and give the conversation some thought before you respond, even in business. Acknowledge the other person’s view and ask for a respite, it’s okay to not know what to say and ask to get back to them when you’ve had a chance to look into or ponder their point more closely.
Taking a break is a valuable way to reduce any regret you may feel from speech. If I’ve made sure that my intent is good and my message is meaningful I am less inclined to wish I’d said nothing if the other person does not respond positively to my words. In those cases where emotions are running high, it gives me a chance to calm down and approach things rationally instead of impulsively.
But really, all this boils down to something that many of us struggle with: taking responsibility for our words. I think we forget, or have been mislead, into thinking that falls on the listener: “they’re just too sensitive”, etc. But that’s a load of crap, we are all responsible for what we say, write, put into the world. Sure, not everyone is going to like what you say, but we all have a duty of care to be aware of others and ourselves and have a reasonable appreciation for how what we do and say affects and is perceived by others.
We are all entitled to our own experience and have had different experiences that would lead us to respond in different ways to a message. There are times where we will do our best, but our message will still not be received in the way we hope. That’s okay, the important thing is to try to be mindful, compassionate, and to aware so we can learn from the outcomes and continue to grow as a person.