I read an article recently by McKinley Valentine about conversational styles for first dates or networking. As I was reading, it struck me that her analysis and comments about volunteers and Interviewers also applies to difficult workplace conversations.
I teach my students and clients to become more aware of conflict and conversation styles and how they harmonize or clash in difficult conversations. Ms. Valentine divides these styles into Interviewers and Volunteers.
Interviewers ask curious open ended questions to learn more about the other person and their perspective, one of the skills I teach my students. Volunteers disclose some vulnerable information about themselves, to invite more openness from the other person. This is a technique I use myself with students and clients, sharing a story about my experience or mistakes to help them feel safe to share their own.
But If one person is asking all the questions and the other answering, that is not a dialogue but an interview (or an interrogation), and if one person shares and the other doesn’t reciprocate, that is not a dialogue either but a monologue. Different people tend to follow their own rules about what is supposed to happen in the conversation and what the other person is supposed to do. But since the other person doesn’t necessarily share your playbook, or know your rules, essential communication can stall or you can make hasty (negative) judgments about the other person.
Valentine recommends monitoring the situation, and practice consciously adding the skill that doesn’t come so naturally to you. Additionally, she encourages people to pay attention to whether the other person pauses and leaves space for you in between their stories , to know if you are dealing with a rude narcissist or a volunteer inviting you to share.
How would this work in a difficult conversation?
You can start at either end—ask a person how they see the situation, asking curious follow up questions to make sure you understand (interview), and then share your perspective (volunteer).
Or, share how the situation felt to you, and ask them how it felt to them. If you know whether the other person is a volunteer or an interviewer, you can start by approaching the conversation with their preferred style, but if you aren’t sure, the important thing is to have the courage to use both approaches, even if one of them feels less comfortable. When you do this, you expand your conflict management and communication tool box and maximize your chances of having an effective difficult conversation.