You can be blindsided and derailed at any time in a conversation. Someone says something that is seemingly out of the blue that feels like an attack. Someone asks a question that, if answered, will take the conversation down a different path than intended. Or you have a strong reaction to something the other person says or does—or doesn't say or do.
In all of these cases, it is important to keep focusing on the end in mind. Years ago, while supporting a woman through a divorce, one of the strategies she used while negotiating a settlement of a twenty year marriage was just this. Whenever her soon-to-be ex brought up division of property that seemed unfair, she noticed her reaction, paused, thought of the end in mind that was most important to her, and was able to respond from that position. Throughout the process, she used a tremendous amount of self-restraint so that she ended the divorce proceedings with her head held up, feeling proud of how she had comported herself, and happy with the divorce settlement. She was able to accomplish this using self-restraint because of her ability to keep focusing on the end she had in mind. She remained clear, calm, kind, fair, and listened well, while keeping the end in mind.
In a conversation with a vendor who was way over his head and didn't want to admit it, evaded any communication that would provide status on what had been accomplished, then became irate and started using expletives, focusing on a positive outcome meant finding the most graceful way to unwind the relationship, recover as much as possible, and leave all his perceptions (presented as facts) unaddressed. To do otherwise would be to engage in the weeds of 'he said, she said,' to invite more of his wrath, and to get nowhere fast. Focusing on the high road in this instance requires letting go of “being right” or of winning in any way. What it does give you, however, is peace of mind that an unseemly relationship is over.
If you are staying focused on how you want to feel at the end of the conversation and what you hope to accomplish, it will look different and you will behave differently in each conversation. For instance, if you are involved in an important conversation with your boss, coworkers, spouse, children, inlaws, or neighbors, you probably want to maintain a good relationship in that you will be relating to them over a long period of time. At the same time, you want to establish clear boundaries and agreements about how you will relate with one another. Engaging in these conversations requires attention, clear intention, and commitment to keeping your focus on the end in mind. Giving in to your reactions, which are often your knee-jerk defensive reactions, only takes you down a path of pain. Quieting your nervous system, calming yourself, and deciding what the best course of action is will help you say what you really want to say with the end in mind. Difficult? Yes. Worth it? Yes.
Most of the time, the boundaries and agreements are not articulated in relationships when they start. This, of course, creates problems in that each person has a different understanding of what is okay and what is not okay. Rather than discuss the “how” of the relationship beforehand, most of us wait until problems arise. If those problems are addressed at all, the conversations are dicey and require a tremendous amount of focusing. It is very easy to get triggered and lose sight of the end you had in mind when you started the conversation.
If you are a supervisor who has given a direct report a less than stellar rating on their performance review, staying focused on the end in mind looks totally different than unwinding a relationship that has soured with a vendor. Whereas you hope to have no further interactions with the vendor, you want to keep your direct report engaged, motivated, and inspired to perform at a higher level. While it is a sound practice to stay out of the weeds with the vendor, it is incumbent on you as a supervisor to articulate the specifics of what you want from your direct report that was not accomplished in the prior performance period. You will only reach the end you have in mind with the employee if you provide clear feedback about what you want and what the employee can do to be successful. At the same time, the more you validate what your direct report has done well and create a plan for how the two of you can check in regularly about the improvement you see, the more likely you are to repair any rupture that occurred and move forward on a positive trajectory.
Keeping focused on the end in mind requires focusing on what is most important in the long run, foregoing what might give you immediate gratification, and knowing that you are living up to your own standards of being the kind of person you want to be.
Knowing that this is difficult, please write in about successes and challenges as you experiment in your important conversations.