Education Week: Talking is easy; conversations are hard

Ari Davis
Audience members at John R. Stoker’s Education Week presentation takes notes on how to hold difficult conversations.

Talking about the weather is easy, but sometimes the conversations that count the most are the hardest.

In an Education Week presentation on Monday, effective communication expert and president of DialogueWORKS John R. Stoker explained how having a plan of action is the best way to hold effective conversations.

The first obstacle most people face in having difficult conversations, whether it is about violated expectations or financial issues, is FEAR — which stands for Fantasized Experience Appearing Real.

Stoker has found that people often project their own negative emotions about a pending conversation because they are clouded by personal interpretation that supports premade assumptions, not the data.

In order to prevent negative conversations, Stoker has developed a four-part system that creates an effective conversation.

Ari Davis
Presenter John R. Stoker encourages the audience to have a plan of action before starting difficult conversations, like he does when he talks with his teenagers.

The first step is positively initiating the conversation, which involves clarifying what needs to be addressed in the conversation while communicating respect to the other person through both tone and words.

“If you don’t know what you want, it really doesn’t matter what you get,” Stoker said about planning your conversations in advance.

To set a conversation in a positive direction, Stoker suggests using I-statements before you-statements.

For example, instead of a parent saying, “You came home past curfew last night,” a less confrontational statement would be, “I noticed you came home past curfew last night, I’d like to talk about that.”

The next step of the conversation is considered the discovery stage, which is where the conversation holder learns more about the other party’s view on the situation by asking confirming and learning questions.

Confirming questions usually incite “yes” or “no” responses that confirm assumptions as facts.

In the case of a teen breaking curfew, a confirming question would be, “I have talked to you about curfew being at 11:30 before, right?”

Learning questions allow the other person to explain him or herself or expand upon the situation, so the initiator of the conversation can obtain answers they need to better understand both sides of the issue.

“Why did you come home late last night, is there something I need to know?”

Following the discovery phase is summarizing and clarifying the issue at hand by connecting.

In this phase, both parties are honest about what they want, their expectations and the consequences to particular actions.

“I expect you to be home by 11:30, because then you can wake-up for school on time and I know that you are safe.”

The final phase of conversation is build, which reinforces the conversation by creating a plan and establishing accountability.

Stoker suggested the best way to get results from a conversation is to create specificity and to allow the other party to create their own plan with consequences, because they will be more invested in keeping the commitment they made — but guidance is always welcomed.

“Now that I have explained why I want you to be home for curfew, what is your plan for keeping curfew and what will be the consequences when you aren’t home on time?”

According to Stoker, the best way to have effective conversations is to practice. He says progress will take time but will be worth the effort as communication about problems becomes easier.

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