In the Beginning

As someone who values healthy, robust conversations about important life and work issues, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how to support people in creating a model and developing skills that support such dialogue. In my observations of myself and others, I've determined that there are four phases to a mindful and courageous conversation: Preparation, Initiation, The Body or Follow -Through, and Closure. I'll focus on one phase each week during this month.

The first phase, or preparatory phase, includes 5 parts: Self-regulation, self-reflection, deciding if you want to have the conversation, envisioning the end in mind, and planning when and how you will initiate it. Each of theses aspects are important to create conditions in which a healthy, thriving conversation will emerge.

Preparatory Phase, Part I: Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is key. Without it, we just dump our defensive reactions on others and then justify it. When we quiet our nervous systems, then we can engage in true self-reflection as well as make better decisions.

Some of the primary tools for self-regulation include breathing, relaxing, oxytocin boosts, and developing an angel voice that can help get you off the cliff.

Preparatory Phase, Part II: Self-Reflection

When you've calmed down and are in a thrive state which promotes innovative thinking, the self-reflection process can begin in earnest. Use any of the practices from root cause analysis to become more self-responsible—looking at how you helped create the situation you are in and what is going on inside you that is getting so triggered. Continue doing your inner research until you are able to acknowledge some way in which you have colluded, even if it is simply that you haven't taken any action until now. Also, the more you understand what is getting triggered inside you about yourself, the better. Reflect deeply enough so you understand how fears (often unconscious) about your significance, competence, or likability are getting triggered. The more you are aware of this, the easier it will be for you to stay calm and focused on what you want to accomplish.

Preparatory Phase, Part III: Decide

After self-reflecting and getting to a deeper understanding of yourself and your own internal triggers, now you can put your focus on deciding whether you want to initiate a conversation with the other person or people. Most of us find reasons why not to have the conversation:

  • The other person might feel hurt.
  • The relationship could get worse.
  • I have to work with this person and I don't want to cause friction.
  • I don't know what to say.
  • Nothing will change anyway.
  • It's not such a big thing. I can deal with it on my own.

We are not as imaginative when it comes to finding reasons to have the important conversations. Often, in romantic relationships, people wait until the relationship is in its death throws and then they finally have the courage to talk about the important stuff. However, this is often when they have already disengaged emotionally, so it less about finding the courage and more about having nothing to lose. In work situations, people will often decide to leave and find another job before bringing up something that bothered them.

Just recently, a friend told me she was going to leave her job because she felt stuck in a rut and without options for growth. Knowing that she is well-respected by her organization, I asked if she had talked to her management about her discontent and desire to do something different. I suggested that if she let them know she was a flight risk, they might offer her something that would motivate her to stay. She had not considered speaking with them as, she told me, she had prior experiences with them in which they told her they wanted her to stay in her position since she was so good at it and valuable to the organization. After our conversation, my friend talked to her management about her desire, which is now an unstoppable need for professional development opportunities, and much to her delight, they offered her a fabulous temporary position for the next year. She was thrilled and accepted the offer.

So with that story in mind, here are some reasons to have the important conversations:

  1. If you have a good conversation and come to an agreement, your relationship or situation can improve.
  2. Remember that you have to buy a lottery ticket to win. If you don't have the conversation, the relationship will stay the same or get worse. The likelihood is that you will drift apart and it will get worse. Problems do not disappear.
  3. You have the opportunity to strengthen the relationship. Surprisingly, this happens frequently and more so, as you get facile with these kinds of conversations.
  4. You will feel proud of yourself for being courageous. You are taking the steering wheel of your life and creating what you want for yourself. Congratulations.
  5. You will feel more alive in your relationships—work and personal. What could be better than feeling alive, satisfied, on your game, doing what you're here to do, and being how you want to be?

Preparatory Phase, Part IV: Envision the End

Envisioning the end you have in mind for the conversation is a powerful way to focus yourself. When you have calmed yourself down, reflected on how you have helped create your situation, and decided that it is important to have the conversation, it is then time to imagine where you want it to end up and how you want to get there. Thinking that you will change someone else is a dead end and a sure way to feel disappointed. Hoping that someone will miraculously intuit what you want and make the change without you having to ask and feel vulnerable is the same—a path to disappointment. However, envisioning what you want about how you behave, how you feel, what happens between the two of you, what path you go down—these are definitely in your power to affect. The more you imagine where you want to go using every sense including your thoughts, the more you are likely to go there.

Preparatory Phase, Part V: Planning

The simplest way to plan when and how to initiate your important conversations uses AEIOU (and Y). The most important thing to do after you decide to initiate a conversation is to figure out when and how.

The 'when' often gets people stuck, and then they ditch the idea. There is never a perfect time, or so it seems. However, setting up time that will be uninterrupted does seems requisite in that interruptions can easily take the conversation side ways and off course. Even if you start with 10 or 15 minutes held aside, you can begin the conversation and then set a time to pick it up. It is most desirable to have 30 minutes or more so you are both relaxed (as much as possible) going into the conversation while not knowing how it will move forward. As you get good at it, it is easier to accomplish a lot in less time. Err on the side of having too much time when you start.

The 'how' is a bit more complex, though AEIOU makes it simple. If you go through the process, you can do it rather quickly. Here is an example of how to use AEIOU while you are preparing (prior to initiating the conversation):

  • A: Get Agreement Think about the best way to contact this person. Is it by phone, stopping in at their office or their house, seeing them for a coffee, writing a text or an email. consider your options and choose the one with the easiest threshold for you that is most likely to get a response.
  • E: End in Mind Think about how you want to feel at the end of the conversation. Also think about what trajectory you want the relationship to take. Consider that you can put it on track to the kind of feeling that you are hoping the two of you create.
  • I: Importance Think about why this is important to you and tell the other the truth about the importance.
  • O: Obstacles This is a bit trickier in that the obstacles can be about yourself and/or about the other person. It is really important to say them in a way that it sounds more about you and what you can handle and less about the other. Pay close attention to make sure you aren't using this to put the other person down.
  • U: Us What I want from you and what I'll do for you. This is often left out as if other people have the same expectations that you have. Since that isn't the case, it is best to say what you really want for the conversation.
  • Y: Yes Saying yes is a vote for the relationship. It is more about your intent and how you come across that lets the other person know that this is something you really want and are not doing it out of obligation. (The Y was added while I was working in France since they use Y as a vowel. Use it or not, as you like.)

When using AEIOU to prepare your conversation, take your time and think through how the other person might respond to you and what you are saying. You need not go in order. If the other person keeps wanting to ask questions or say something, go to the U and tell the person how you would like the conversation to flow. It is also okay to say that you are simply wanting to set up the conversation and you will get into the content after you've created an environment that will support the kind of healthy conversation that you want.

Have fun as you work with this and write in about how it works for you.

Judith Bell, M.S., Master LHEP™

Judith Bell, M.S., Master LHEP™

Judith is the founder and president of Rewire Leadership Institute®. A master facilitator, consultant, teacher, and coach, she has created and facilitated personal growth, team development and organizational change seminars, coached executives and teams, facilitated strategic planning and high visibility meetings, and supported culture change for over four decades. Judith works with a diverse range of companies from government agencies, non-profit, Fortune Global 500, to small and mid-sized family owned businesses including such organizations as NASA, Seaflow, Total Oil, Restoration Hardware, San Antonio Water System, and Culver Company.

Superb at supporting individuals, pairs, and teams in developing the skills necessary to realize their full potential, Judith helps executives, managers, and staff gain the ability to respond flexibly and rapidly to their changing environment. Through extensive experience and research, she utilizes a number of different approaches including the FIRO theory, systems theory, cybernetics, neuroscience, cognitive, positive, and success psychology.

As one of the world’s leading experts on the FIRO theory, she trains consultants internationally. A consultant’s consultant, Judith mentors facilitators, coaches, therapists and other professionals in the integration of the FIRO theory in their work. From 1981 until 2004, she worked closely with Dr. Will Schutz, the creator of FIRO theory. Independently, Judith developed FIRO Theory Profiling, which has been lauded as the first innovation in the FIRO theory instruments aside from Dr. Schutz’ own developments. She continues to develop courses that synthesize her studies and experience and are based in FIRO theory.

Starting in her teenage years, Judith has been a pioneer in her passion for authenticity, clear communication, and positive change. She is lauded for her ability to see others’ potential and help them realize it—be they individuals, pairs, teams, or organizations. Judith’s zest for life, appreciation for others, and generosity of spirit inspires those with whom she works.

An honor’s student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Judith’s desire and passion to learn about authenticity motivated her to move her studies to The Institute for Creative and Artistic Development (ICAD) in Oakland, California. As the youngest student in their teacher training program, she created and graduated with an undergraduate degree that focused on authenticity through California State University, Sonoma. Continuing on her quest to study authenticity and creativity, Judith began taking courses at California State University, Hayward where she also created and graduated with a unique Master’s degree that focused on communication, transformation, and the creative arts.

Interested in systems and change, Judith began experimenting with her innovative action-oriented approach to assess and intervene with families, groups, and organizations. Through this work, she became a much sought-after instructor, training masters and doctoral students in her seminal work. As chair of a psychology program focused on Creative Arts Therapies at Antioch University, San Francisco, she developed curriculum and continued to serve as guest faculty and lecturer at universities nationwide.

In addition to leading Rewire Leadership, Judith and her husband, Daniel Ellenberg, co-founded Relationships That Work®, where she serves as Vice President. She and Daniel co-authored Lovers for Life: Creating Lasting Passion, Trust, and True Partnership, which applies the principles of Rewire Leadership Institute® to romantic relationships. Recently, they co-authored a chapter in Mastering the Art of Success: Volume 8. With Matt White, Judith recently co-authored Leading with Courage.

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