How To Get Past Conversational Smoke And Mirrors

How To Get Past Conversational Smoke And Mirrors post image

Have you ever been frustrated by a conversation (or a series of them!) that seems to go nowhere no matter how hard you try?

Progress can be illusive at best when two or more people are in a conversation in which they are not committed to the same outcome.  Yet even when you are seemingly on the same page about the purpose of a conversation, it can still be difficult when you encounter someone who is like a magician making clarity, focus and progress evaporate in an instant.

These conversational magicians are masterful with the communication equivalent of smoke and mirrors in creating the illusion that a real conversation is going on.

Sometimes it is intentional.  It could be they have an agenda that runs counter to yours or simply something they do not want revealed.  In the worst of cases there could be something untoward going on.

Other times it is simply a lack of consciousness about how they are getting in the way of progress.  It could also be a lack of willingness or weak ability to remain focused on the topic at hand.  No matter what the cause may be though, when you encounter one of these magicians, there are things you can do to turn things around and cause a breakthrough in progress.

The key lies in how well you prepare for the next conversation.

Here are 3 things you must do to prepare to have a productive and satisfying conversation.

1.  Get Focused on a Specific Outcome

Focus on why you need to have a conversation – not in terms of a reason, but rather in terms of an end result.  What do you want the outcome of your next conversation to be that would have you feel satisfied.   Is there a decision that needs to be made?  Is there something you need to understand better or information you need that you have not been able to acquire?  Is there something you want someone to do as a result?  If so, prepare your request in advance.

A great way to ensure progress is to be clear about what would need to happen next, after the meeting, to ensure you don’t just talk about progress, but actually make progress in reality.

2.  Get Clear About the Topics You Think Need to be Covered to Deliver on that Specific Outcome

Until you are absolutely clear about what you think you need to discuss, consider you are not sufficiently prepared.  With conversational magicians there is no room for muddled thinking or speaking.  You must get crystal clear for yourself ahead of time.  Of course others in the conversation may see other topics to discuss to deliver on the outcome.  That is why #1 is so critical.  Your job is to ensure every topic directly correlates to the specific outcome at hand.  Also, knowing what you think the key topics are ahead of time helps ensure you don’t get sidetracked.

Remember, conversational magicians are by their nature difficult to corral so you must stay clear and focused throughout!

3,  Simplify Even More

Whatever you have written down so far, try getting even simpler.  A great practice is to try stating your outcome and each of your key topics in 140 characters or less.  (That is the length of a tweet in case you are wondering.  Tweeting, by the way, is great practice, for learning the art of brevity.)

Now if you would rather not write #1 and #2 down, think again.  It is far too easy to think you are clear when you are mulling things over in your own mind.  Writing down your intended outcome and the key topics will test just how clear you really are.

It doesn’t matter whether there is 1 other person involved or 20, these same things are essential to ensure you engage in consistently productive and satisfying conversations.

Every one of these steps may seem simple, but they are not always easy.  It takes hard work to get clear, stay focused and simplify.  Warning: failure to do the work to prepare may result in you unwittingly becoming one of those conversational magicians yourself.

The good news is the more you practice the easier it will get. You may even find it helps even the best of interactions to be even more productive and satisfying that ever.

What strategies do you use to get past conversational smoke and mirrors?


Enter A Comment

D'Anne Hotchkiss   |   12 April 2013   |   Reply

Susan, I love your advice about 140-character thoughts. Especially if you couple this approach with asking for the other person to feed back what he thinks you just said.

Susan Mazza   |   12 April 2013   |   Reply

Thanks D’Anne. Excellent point about asking for the other person to feed back what they hear. It is amazing how much we think gets communicated that never actually gets heard!

Molly   |   24 April 2013   |   Reply

“Remember, conversational magicians are by their nature difficult to corral so you must stay clear and focused throughout!” This hit home for me. Making every effort to cut “rabbit trails” short before they derail progress can be tough but essential.
Any ideas on polite phrases to use?

Susan Mazza   |   24 April 2013   |   Reply

The thinking is perhaps more useful than “polite phrases” – here is an example: Good point (or something that acknowledges you heard what was said), is this something we need to discuss to accomplish the goal for this call – to ________ (insert goal here). By re-presencing the goal, you help others take responsibility for returning the focus of the conversation with you. Leading people to make a choice in everyone’s highest great way to politely but firmly direct the conversation.

The thing sets people up most often to get sucked down the rabbit hole is when they have a list of things to talk about, but don’t get clear about the specific end goal of talking about those things. Without a clear goal that all participating are aligned with at the start, a “rabbit hole” is hard to reel people away from.