Have an outcome in mind and a plan to get there.
– Any important communication warrants advance planning. You wouldn’t build a house without a floor plan. Don’t have important meetings or discussions without a communication plan.
My last posting was the first in a series on our tips for communication and focused on setting a goal for your communication. In this closely related topic, we will discuss the importance of planning for any important communication. While we go about our day and have any number of unplanned, informal communications, when the outcome or impact of a communication has important implications, planning can be very helpful to a achieving a positive outcome.
In Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes seven things that his research revealed that many successful, effective people tend to do as a part of their overall style. The second habit he describes is “Begin with the end in mind.” Dr. Covey describes this habit as “based on imagination–the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default. …” The same can be said about approaching important communications.
So, how do we go about planning for an important communication? Below, I discuss five key factors that, among others, are often important key elements to effectively planning a communication:
- Knowing who needs to participate and why.
- Understanding the issue and framing it in a relatable way.
- Knowing yourself and the needs and concerns you seek to address.
- Knowing the other participants and their needs, issues, and concerns.
- Having ideas for how to meet your needs while allowing the other participants to meet their needs.
I’ll discuss each of these elements in a little more detail next.
1. Knowing with Whom to Speak and Why.
It is important to know who should be involved in your communication for many, many reasons. We will share more about some of these reasons in later posts, such as understanding the other’s decision-making and communication styles. For our purposes in this discussion, it is important to ask yourself the following questions and evaluate some of the considerations that flow from the questions. First, does the person I seek to influence have control over the outcome I seek? There is nothing much more frustrating than meeting with someone who can only listen and cannot act on your request, if you need action. Is there someone who, if not involved, can consciously or unconsciously overturn or sabotage the outcome of your meeting? If so, shouldn’t they be involved?
2. Understanding and Framing the Issue
Before setting about to gain commitment from someone or to influence their thinking about an issue or concern, it is critically important for you, yourself, to have a clear understanding of the issue and, perhaps even more importantly, what it is you seek. I recall one meeting with an individual who was concerned about the way he perceived he was treated in his workplace. When asked by his supervisor what it was he wanted, he responded “dignity.” His supervisor did not have a clear understanding of what “dignity” would look like to the person and asked, “will that be one lump or two?” Needless to say, both parties were somewhat frustrated by the lack of a clear request. Once, the components of what “dignity” meant to the individual were clarified, it was not difficult to reach some mutual agreement around interactions. However, absent clarification, no progress would have been made. So, as a person seeking change or to influence another, it is useful to be as clear and concrete as one possibly can, when seeking a commitment from another. Do not go into a meeting without a clear and concrete vision of exactly what you want.
In addition to having clarity about your issue or concern, it is important to consider how you can frame your issue in a way that those with whom you communicate can clearly grasp it and relate to it. Is there a construct or metaphor that your listener will readily relate to? For example, several years ago, a professional colleague and I were asked to facilitate communication among a team of research collaborators. The collaboration had broken down due to different styles and expectations among the participants. After hearing from all of the parties, it looked like the mutual preference of all involved was to dissolve the collaboration. As a consequence, my colleague and I agreed that the situation was actually now similar to a custody situation. Understanding scientific researchers, we appreciated how close an individual can become to their work – almost like a family connection, we came back to the full group and framed the key issue as one of custody of the components of the research. Framing the issue using this particular metaphor turned out to be very useful. The parties immediately shared an understanding of the goal of the meeting and actually continued and extended the metaphor throughout the dialogue. The outcome was a durable agreement involving ownership of key components of the on-going research project.
3. Know Yourself and Your Needs
Before you start your meeting, it is often important to review your own needs. It is one thing to be clear and focused about your desired outcome, but it is another to be locked into a specific outcome at the expense of overlooking other opportunities that may actually serve your underlying interests better. By assessing your actual needs and long-term interests in advance, you can be more attuned to opportunities that you may not have thought of and which may actually provide better long-term opportunities. By understanding the larger context and where this particular interaction fits within that context, you can allow yourself the flexibility to consider and enhance your initial vision as you engage in dialogue. Absent this deeper self-awareness coming into a meeting, it is easy to overlook opportunities and to lock oneself into a single option.
To be thoroughly self aware – especially when there is an emotional component to your concern can be extremely challenging. You may wish to “bounce” your concerns around with a trusted friend and have that person ask you clarifying questions. At the very least, depending on your concern or issue, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why is this important to me?
- Does the opportunity to address this concern carry more benefit than the possible risk?
- What do I want to come away with from this meeting?
- What are the risks and downsides of raising this concern, and how do I minimize them?
- How does seeking to address this concern affect my long-term goals?
- What are acceptable alternatives beyond what I might be seeking today?
Once you have a clear idea of a range of outcomes that might be better than the status quo, you will be more fully prepared to engage.
4. Knowing the Other Participants’ Needs
It is important to have as deep an understanding as possible about the needs of the other(s) with whom you will be communicating. Sometimes you already have a sense of their needs because they have shared them in some form. Often, however, you may be left lacking a lot of information about what their needs might be. If so, how does one go about discovering these needs? In order to gain a positive commitment, or to positively influence another, it is truly imperative that you have an understanding of their position, needs, and concerns may be. In some cases you can gain much of this from collateral sources of information, such as mutual friends or work colleagues. But absent collateral sources of information, how does one gain awareness of the other? It may see surprising, but the most obvious approach may be simply to ask!
Earlier in this post, I made reference to Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Another adage or key habit that Dr. Covey discusses (Habit Five), is to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”
Dr. Covey points out that most people tend to listen with the intent to reply, rather than listening for the awareness and insights one can gain into the needs and concerns of the other. In future postings we will discuss deep listening in more detail. For our purposes today, the important point is to approach each meeting with a key goal of learning about the other before launching into a discussion of your own needs. Plunging into a dialogue with another without this critical step is like diving head-first into a dark pond, not knowing how deep the water is. You can save yourself and the other a lot of frustration and potentially wasted time, but knowing as much as you can of the other. I can recount any number of times, when a person thought there was an issue, only to find out that the other person actually agreed with them from the outset.
The other benefit of seeking to understand the other first is that it sets a positive tone for the dialogue. It’s amazing how spending a little time asking about the other and their needs and interest paints you as a “great listener.” Being likeable is a critical component to being successful in your communication. And, being a good listener often enhances your likeability.
In future postings we will also speak more about knowing the other participant, in terms of their communication and decision-making styles, and the power of harnessing this knowledge for the purposes of positive influence.
5. Meeting Your Needs While Meeting the Needs of the Other
When you have a clear understanding of your needs as well as those of the other, you are in a far better position to develop positive outcomes that work for all involved. Many writers, including Dr. Covey (see for example his Habit Four: Win-Win Outcomes, and Habit Six: Synergy) speak of the value of seeking solutions that meet not only your needs, but those of the other(s). In their ground-breaking work in negotiation research, Roger Fisher and William Ury, discuss the value of approaching conflict with the goal of a “win-win” outcome. While, in my experience, seeking a win-win outcome no matter the energy involved and the deep-rooted can yield frustrating results, deeply appreciating and considering how you can meet your own needs while helping the other meet theirs is, in many cases, a very powerful tool.
As Steven Covey puts it “Win-win sees life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win-win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying.” When everyone sees advantages to the outcome arrived at, the odds of the outcome being durable and supported by many are greatly increased. Likewise, as Dr. Covey points out, “When people begin to interact together genuinely, and they’re open to each other’s influence, they begin to gain new insight. The capability of inventing new approaches is increased exponentially because of differences.”
By having a clear vision of the interests you seek to further, and knowing how this might dovetail with the interests of others, you can greatly improve the chances of an effective outcome. Approaching your concern with an appreciation of the others involved and their needs, enables you to approach a concern in a way that others may see as opportunity rather than threat. Spending time planning your important communication vastly improves the prognosis for a great outcome!
©Bruce J. MacAllister, July 2011
 For more information on Dr. Covey and his work, see https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits-habit2.php
 See, for example, Roger Fisher and William Ury’s book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.
 The concept of “win-win” works well in high-level negotiations with multiple stakeholders and deep rooted issues, such as international negotiations. However, for smaller, single issue issues, the win-win paradigm may actually add stress to approaching the issue. For example, the energy of seeking a “win-win” solution may exceed the benefit of the results when the issue is trivial and a simple commitment from another is not that unreasonable. Likewise, I have conducted many divorce mediations, where the operating construct of win-win may be unrealistic given that, under the best of circumstances, everyone is giving up something.
 See, for example, https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits-habit4.php
 See, for example, https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits-habit6.php