How To ‘Practice’ Important Conversations and Make Someone Listen To You
There’s a scene in movies that reappears again and again: the hero wants to ask the heroine on a date (or go on a spy mission with him, or be the getaway driver in a bank heist, or allow him to have the kids for the weekend) and he fears his chances of getting a ‘yes’ from her are slim. He worries about the conversation, and builds himself up into a panic, and starts to practice the conversation in the mirror, filling in her side of it and coming up with witty retorts to her imagined sexy flirting. Finally, he picks up the phone and calls her, and his carefully planned conversation falls apart. She’s out and he ends up babbling into the answer machine, or she’s ratty because the Russians have already blown her cover and there are evil G-men at the window with guns, or else it’s just too early in the movie for love to flourish, and she’s just not that into him.
This technique of ‘practicing conversations’ isn’t confined to Hollywood rom-coms, and it’s certainly not confined to the problems of dating. You’re mad at your boss for bypassing you for promotion again? You can spend hours thinking about how to have that conversation with her about getting a raise. Are you livid at the family doctor for ignoring your concerns? You might sweat for days before your next appointment, going over and over in your mind how you can get across to him the importance of the matter. Or maybe you know that you’re brother is going to ask you to lend him the rent money, and you tie yourself up in knots practicing how to let him down gently. Then the moment comes, and they say something leftfield that throws you completely, and you find yourself submitting to their whims.
The problem is that no matter how many different scenarios you practice in your head, you can only practice your side of that important conversation. And if you’re waiting for certain cues you’ll be trying to hold a mountain of useless comebacks and counterarguments in your head, and that mountain will crowd out your ability to react spontaneously. The other person – whether it’s your boss or your spouse – probably hasn’t been worrying and planning for days on end, and that gives them the upper hand whether they know it or not.
If you know there’s an argument or confrontation brewing, don’t OVER-practice it beforehand! If you keep imagining worst-case scenarios you will enter the conversation even more nervous, and if you’re holding an imagined ‘script’ in your head, you won’t be able to respond to the arguments they give that you never even thought of.
So How SHOULD You Prepare For A Confrontation?
1. Know in advance what you want, and don’t feel guilty about it. Be clear in your mind about the central issue. You want a raise and feel that you deserve one? All you need to prepare for that conversation with your boss is the answer to the question ‘How much’ and two or three good reasons why you’re worth it. Maybe have an opening line ready, which can be as simple as, ‘I’ve been working for the company for five years and I’ve brought in a lot of new customers, so I think I deserve a raise.’ Or if your problem is a brother who’s always borrowing money from you, and who has a way of making you feel like you owe him something, just be clear in your mind that you can no longer afford to help him. If there are tears and tantrums, so be it: you would help him if you could, but you can’t.
2. Don’t think of what you want as if it’s the Holy Grail. This can be tough if it’s something that you really need, but attaching emotion to the conversation is unlikely to help. No matter how much you make someone else see that something is important to you, it will never be as important to them. All you can try to do is ask them to help you, and if they don’t respond as you wish, there is little you can do about it. Tears and tantrums should not make you give in to someone else, and neither should you expect your own to persuade someone else – that is emotional blackmail, and it has no place in a serious conversation.
3. Stay calm and professional. If it’s a personal conversation that you are about to have – with family or a friend – ‘staying professional’ might seem like an odd tactic. But I don’t mean that you should be cold or distant with the person, but remain unflustered and civilised. If the matter is a very important one, the very fact that you are calm, polite and understanding will impress someone more than breaking down in tears, or trading offensive insults, which could close down other avenues of help.
4. Have a back-up request ready. At the most, if you receive a flat refusal about an issue that’s vital to you, ask if there’s another way they can help. If your boss turns down your request for promotion, ask if she thinks you’re lacking some important qualifications, or if there might be other positions in the company that you could apply for. If your doctor refuses to entertain your concerns, tell him that you want a second opinion rather than get into an emotive argument about why you think he should help you – you might think he should help you, but he has another twenty patients to see that day, and referring you to another doctor may well be the only action he can take.
5.Do not threaten revenge or insinuate that if they refuse to help there will be dire consequences for them. This seems obvious in the calm and rational light of day, but in the heat of the moment when you have been refused promotion despite your best efforts, it’s tempting to threaten to take all your hard work elsewhere and find alternative employment. But any hint of revenge-talk will almost certainly backfire on you – even if it’s just a few weeks of embarrassment in the office when your boss keeps asking with a wry smile when you’ll be leaving.
6. Remember that a conversation is a debate, but not in the same way as the debates in a court or the high school debating society. In your important conversation, you and your ‘opponent’ aren’t playing by a set of rules, and there is no referee or audience. Equally, it doesn’t have to deteriorate into a full-on argument or shouting match. The calmer and more reasonable and polite you remain, the greater are the chances that your boss, or partner, or doctor, or anyone else that you’re speaking to, will remain clam and reasonable too: and if they don’t, or if they are stubbornly unable to grasp your point, you will at least be able to retreat with your dignity and self-esteem intact, and use your energy to explore alternative possibilities.
You will never be able to think of and prepare for every possible response in that conversation you’re dreading, but as long as you go in knowing what you want, that is preparation enough. And if you keep your mind clear by not giving in to the temptation to work yourself up into an emotional state by going over and over the possibilities, and cluttering your mind with every possible witty response, you will have a clear space, and a clear head, and be able to react spontaneously and reasonably to any unexpected twists and turns that the real conversation throws at you.