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2 conversation patterns that can damage your career

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As leaders, we’ve all experienced frustrating workplace conversations — whether it’s with peers, direct reports, clients or any of the other individuals we need to talk with to get our work done. When communication breaks down, it’s easy to blame the people we’re talking to. How many times have you thought to yourself, “This negotiation would go smoothly if she weren’t so passive aggressive”; “The real problem here is his bad attitude”; or “The reason we keep fighting is that they’re so defensive.”

While this sort of thinking is only natural, it prevents us from recognizing the real culprit behind conversation breakdowns: The patterns of communication behaviors (words and voice tones) that are being used. Those patterns are never just one person’s responsibility. They emerge from the ongoing interactions among everyone who’s talking — including you. This is good news! It means that when one of your conversations heads south, you have the power to turn it around, simply by changing your own behavior.

Two of the most troublesome conversation patterns in the workplace are polite fights and question traps.

1. Polite Fights. A polite fight is a conversation dominated by “yes-buts,” with each person stating a token agreement (“yes”) followed by a different idea (“but”). Imagine having the following conversation with a co-worker:

You: “We should purchase these new computer systems for the office.”

Co-worker: “Yes, we really need some upgrades [YES], but our budget is too tight for that right now [BUT].”

You: “I know the budget is tight [YES]; however, these new systems will increase our productivity and enable us to bring in more revenue [BUT].”

Co-worker: “That sounds great for the long term [YES]; still, in the short term, we can’t afford to make that investment.”

And so on.

This ping-pong match of competing ideas could continue indefinitely. While the discussion may sound relatively polite — you’re not yelling or personally attacking each other — it won’t bring you any closer to making a decision about computer systems.

Joint decisions require common ground. Yes-butting tends to erode common ground by drawing attention away from points of agreement (the yeses) and toward areas where you disagree (the buts).

2. Question Traps. Have you ever been asked a question that felt less like an open request than a push for you to agree with the other person? For instance, “This is clearly a better design, don’t you think?” or “You won’t openly oppose this proposal, will you?” That type of question — a “leading question” — makes it clear what the “right” or expected response is (usually “Yes” or “No”).

Leading questions tend to elicit one of two responses: defiance (habitual opposition) or compliance (habitual agreement). Both patterns cause problems. For instance:

CEO: “You can meet this earlier deadline, right?”

Supervisor (defiant): “Yes, but you shouldn’t always take that for granted when my team is so overworked.” (Even though there’s no fundamental disagreement, this defiant yes-but can lead to an argument.)

CEO: “You can meet this earlier deadline, right?”

Supervisor (compliant): “Uh, sure. We’ll find a way.” (If the honest answer is “No,” but the supervisor doesn’t feel comfortable saying so, the CEO might not learn the truth until it’s too late.)

The first step in turning around polite fights, question traps and other chronic communication problems is to shift from blaming the other person (“She’s so stubborn”) to recognizing the conversational pattern you’re both contributing to (“We’re both yes-butting”). Then you can consciously choose to resist your habitual response and do something different instead. You may be pleasantly surprised at how changing your own communication changes the way others communicate with you.

About the author: Dr. Ben Benjamin is the co-author with Amy Yeager and Anita Simon of “Conversation Transformation: Recognize and Overcome the 6 Most Destructive Communication Patterns.” He is a communications consultant, business coach, writer and entrepreneur who has been teaching communication skills for more than 30 years. For more information, visit www.savitrainingpartners.com.