Every conversation has two sides; what is said and what is thought but not said. What is thought and felt but not said is described by Peter Senge as the “left hand column (LHC)” versus what is actually said as the “right hand column.” If we always said what we are thinking, we would never get anything done. If we never said what we are thinking we would just do what we are told. The challenge is to determine what is of value from our LHC and produce a conversation that advances the task, the relationship, and ourselves.
During challenging conversations, you can consider what is in your LHC to be like toxic waste. If you bury it, the consequences are likely to be stress and anxiety leading to physical manifestations such as high blood pressure, ulcer, heart attack, not to mention being out of integrity with yourself. If you dump that toxic LHC waste, you run the risk of damaging the relationship and feeling guilty later. If burying the toxic waste pollutes yourself and dumping it pollutes the relationship, we must find a way to process the waste as we would process crude oil into gasoline.
You can’t choose the thoughts that show up in your LHC, but you can choose how you respond to them. Taking responsibility, avoiding unfair and untested conclusions, productive advocacy and inquiry all come into play. Often this seems overwhelming. Here is a simple model that I think is very effective for difficult conversations.
- Set the context – Be sure to say what is important to you. For example, “What I care about is our team goal. I am concerned that we are losing trust with the client because our team cannot agree on how to handle this.”
- Check for alignment – Does the other person care about the same thing?
- Share content – Advocate for your position and ask others where they stand.
- Come to resolution
Having difficult and important conversations successfully is a life-long practice which takes just that, practice. I find that it is so valuable to talk through a difficult conversation before I have it. When I spend a few minutes thinking or talking through what I want to say, I am always glad I did. We spend so much time planning our work and completing tasks. How much time do you put into your communication? It’s so much better to leave a conversation feeling productive and whole rather than frustrated and disconnected. Take the time to give it your best.