“A lot of energy is wasted because we misunderstand each other, make uninformed judgments, and have difficulty coming to agreements—causing both relationships and results to suffer. For most of us, communicating with others is one of the most challenging aspects of our professional and personal lives.”
The data is clear: employee engagement is directly related to the relationships that people have with both their managers and their peers. Relationships are built through conversations. Ann Van Eron has outlined a simple, easy to follow process for improving personal relationships through more open conversations in her new book OASIS Conversations: Leading with an Open Mindset to Maximize Potential.
What I really like about this book is it’s focus on personal accountability and openness. We often make snap-judgments about others, and carry around unconscious biases and assumptions that can damage our relationships. By following the steps outlined in Van Eron’s book, we can all learn to challenge those assumptions, have more open conversations, and build more productive relationships.
Create an OASIS
"What if you could turn the desert of miscommunication that exists between you and others into an oasis where you can meet and have a refreshing conversation—one that allows you each to understand where the other is coming from so you can develop empathy and insight and reach mutually beneficial agreements?"
OASIS is an acronym for a series of steps to take to ensure positive and productive conversations:
O – Observation: Think about the observable data, divorced from your thoughts or feelings.
A – Awareness: Be aware of the assumptions, emotions, and biases that influence your perception of the situation.
S – Shift (to being open): When you become aware of the implicit judgments you are making, make a concerted shift toward curiosity about the other person’s perspective.
I – Importance: Now that you are communicating from a position of openness, focus the conversation on what is important to you and the people you are communicating with.
S – Solution: Based on what is important to all parties involved, explore and agree on possible solutions.
One of the strengths of this framework is the focus on personal accountability. Having meaningful conversations is a choice, and there are clear, easy to follow steps to creating them. It’s a great reminder to examine the assumptions and biases behind emotional reactions, and to remember that there is likely a lot going on that you don’t know about. Van Eron discusses each step of the process in depth, and makes it easy to implement her process. Even at a high level, remembering to approach difficult conversations from an open perspective can quickly yield results.
Intent Does Not Equal Impact
"Most of us view a person’s behavior, attribute a motive to it, and more often than not, tend to assume negative intent. Just the awareness of a person’s positive intent can change the way we respond to that person."
Great conversations can’t happen without a degree of trust and respect. We are physiologically wired to be constantly scanning for threats. When we sense danger, we shut down, bristle, and go on the defensive. It’s difficult to have open and honest conversations when this happens.
At one of my first jobs, I worked for a manager who sent notoriously short emails–three half sentences if you were lucky. About three weeks after I started, I was out for drinks with a co-worker (hired at the same time/level as me), and she confessed that she thought our boss hated her. She was feeling insecure in her new role, and interpreted those short, stream of conscious emails as chastising, or some sort of coded indicator of her poor performance.
Really, that manager was just trying to loop us in on her thinking, so that we could learn from her. Her intent was to help us progress in our careers, to understand elements of the business more fully, and to invite us to pitch her ideas. Once we were able to talk through our manager’s intent, those curt emails no longer felt like a slight, and we were both able to learn a great deal.
I think it’s important to note that my co-worker’s response was emotional. We were three weeks into new and challenging roles, so of course she was feeling overwhelmed and perhaps a bit vulnerable. Those emotions manifested in an assumption that turned out to be incorrect. The simple act of becoming aware of that assumption (instead of just feeling it emotionally), allowed us to talk through the situation from a new perspective, and reframe our conversations for the better.
Take a Welcoming Stance—Be Curious
"It is useful to remember: “We don’t know what we don’t know.” This will engage our curiosity."
Van Eron lists five stances or moods that can help to create an open, non-judgmental mindset. They are:
- Courageous (open-gutted)
- Compassionate (open-hearted)
- Curious (open-minded)
- Appreciative of “what is” and “what is unfolding”
- Optimistic about what is possible.
In applying to your own communication style, think about the areas of your life where these perspectives will help you to have more valuable conversations.
For me, a lot of this introspection came back to curiosity and open-mindedness, and how much of our innate curiosity is programmed out of us at school, and early in our work experience. I am a very inquisitive person by nature, and I can remember countless examples from my early education when I was encouraged (either implicitly or explicitly) to just stop with the questions already and do the assignment. But a curious stance is an open stance. When you are hungry to know more, to understand better, to fill in the blanks, you are not judging.
Van Eron suggests that we make a conscious effort to begin questions with the words “I’m curious” to develop the practice of curiosity. Starting a question this way signals to the other person that you’re not coming from a place of judgment, you just really want to know more about what they think. This signals respect and trust, and creates space for more meaningful conversations. It’s a simple but powerful action that you can take today.
This is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to improve the quality of their conversations. It’s geared toward the workplace, but there are certainly applications for personal relationships as well. By following the five steps in the OASIS process that Van Eron lays out, you can learn to recognize your own judgments, adopt an open-minded stance, and create practical solutions for problems you are facing. Thinking about these steps in relation to difficult conversations I’ve had recently in my personal life has already yielded some great results, and helped me to adopt a more open-mindset.