7 Tips for Managing “White Water” Conversations

John R. Stoker is the author of  “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of Dialogue WORKS, Inc.  His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. 
For 13 summers, I worked in the Grand Canyon as a whitewater guide to pay for my college education. Running the river was the highlight of my young life to that point in time. I loved the beauty of the canyon and river, as well as the excitement and changing nature of our experiences. In order to keep my passengers and me safe, I learned very quickly to be focused not only on what was happening right then, but to look ahead, have a plan, consider what could happen, and have a plan for managing those contingencies.

Sometimes when we least expected it, the river would grab our boat, throw it against sharp rocks, and cut the rubber tubes that kept the boat afloat. Other times, the river’s current would place the boat and our passengers in a precarious position. Rocks sometimes seemed to appear out of nowhere, taking a toll on our motor’s propeller. Even off the river in camp, the rattlesnakes, cactus, and scorpions could present a number of challenges. Sometimes these situations could be predicted and avoided; at other times, a challenge seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

I have found that our conversations have many parallels to my experiences running the river. Sometimes our conversations go according to plan. Other times, they can take a sudden turn into “whitewater” conversations. These kinds of conversations can arise by surprise and are occasionally filled with torturous turns of events and even impending dangers. In order to successfully manage these challenging conversations, it is important to have a plan so that when they occur, you will be able to manage them in the moment.

Here are seven tips for managing difficult conversations when they arise.

 

  1. Prepare. On the river, it is important to have the right equipment and know how to use it. When some conversations start to take a turn for the worse, it’s important to be able to recognize what’s happening and know what to do. A good rule of thumb is to start asking questions and listen carefully to the responses. Asking questions puts control of the conversation in your hands, allowing you to guide and direct the conversation. Listening to others’ responses will reveal to you what is important to them. Any topic that causes a person to become excited or emotional is a signal that topic is important to them.
I have found that our conversations have many parallels to my experiences running the river.
JOHN STOKER
  1. Be aware. One time I was more interested in visiting with my passengers instead of focusing on the river. Because I wasn’t paying careful attention, the current grabbed the boat, shot it into a rock wall, and pinned the boat against it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to free the boat myself and we had to wait until a second boat came along to pull us off the rock wall.

There are dynamics in conversation that you can recognize and manage to control the outcome from getting off course. For example, notice escalating volume and gestures, the emergence of negative or “hot” emotions, the use of subjective or emotionally charged words, or the cynical or sarcastic tone that you partner may begin to use. Being able to recognize these dynamics puts you in a position of being able to manage them. Respectfully acknowledging these behaviors and asking for their meaning allows you to not only increase your understanding, but also avoid a negative outcome. For example, you might say in a neutral tone, “I noticed you sighed when I was sharing my idea. I am wondering if there is something that might be important for you to add.” Notice you are acknowledging their behavior and asking for meaning.

  1. Anticipate. In order to avoid being caught off guard, it is important to consider the various ways that the conversation could go. It’s especially important to anticipate any negative outcomes. In all my years running the river, I never could have imagined that someone would sit on a rattlesnake in camp, that someone would fall off of the boat during a stretch of huge rapids and reach up and grab the prop on their way to the surface, or that someone would bring their alcoholic partner to the Canyon to go through withdrawal on an eight-day trip.  I eventually learned to expect the unexpected and think through how I might handle unique situations.

You can effectively anticipate how the conversation might go by asking yourself the following questions: What is the topic to be discussed? How might this person respond to this particular topic and their role in the situation? How might my past history with this individual influence the conversation? or, How might my position or expertise impact this person’s willingness to share or to be open and honest? Taking a moment to anticipate how the interaction might go allows you to mentally prepare to manage the conversation.

  1. Be deliberate. Sometimes when the rapids become especially treacherous, a good guide will stop and tie up the boat above the rapid, scout the rapid, and make a plan for successfully navigating it. In doing this, the guide will pick their path and calculate their maneuvers through the waves and around the rocks and deadly drops.

In conversation, taking a minute to decide what you want to achieve as a purpose or outcome of the conversation will help you to stay focused on your goal. People may try to distract you from the conversation that you want or need to hold, especially if the topic is difficult. If you are clear in your intention and what you want to accomplish, you will find it easier to stay in the current of the conversation until you reach your ultimate goal.

  1. Be in control. Once when I was teaching a new boatman to run a dangerous rapid, he panicked and jumped from the back of the boat up into the middle, dropping the tiller and leaving me to control the boat. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to do anything but try to pull the motor out of the water as we went over a large waterfall. The motor hit the river bottom breaking the motor mounts and pushing the motor into my chest as we were buried in a mountain of foam. The only thing that kept the motor from being lost was the motor’s safety chain that was attached to the boat.

Sometimes in conversation, a person will start to become emotional, accusatory, or downright nasty. This is not the time for you to match their behavior. You must remain in control of yourself to maintain control of the conversation. You cannot match their intensity in the situation. Rather you must remain calm and try to understand what is causing the other person’s reaction. You might try asking yourself, “What does this person want?” or, “What is this person afraid of losing?” Emotional reactions symbolize a violated value, whether real or perceived. The challenge in these situations is for you to remain calm and try to discover what is going on with another person by asking questions.

  1. Be in discovery. Often people would come to run the river and they wouldn’t take advantage of all there was to see and do. Frequently we would take people on hikes to see some of the most amazing things in nature. Some groups would hike, arrive at our destination, and then without telling anyone, immediately hike back and sit on the boat. Some wouldn’t even participate in the hikes at all, preferring to stay with the boat. I often referred to these kinds of passengers as “homing pigeons.” These folks were content to sit on the boat and roast in the sun rather than take time to enjoy the stunning beauty of the Canyon.

Sometimes we approach difficult situations or individuals with a number of preconceived assumptions and judgments about the person or the situation. These mental preoccupations influence the way we interact. Unfortunately, our thinking is often incomplete or inaccurate, and yet we allow that thinking to dictate our behavior. When talking to people, we need to be more conscious about suspending our thinking and adopt an attitude of discovery and learning. Such a perspective will lead you to ask questions and listen, which will enhance your understanding and increase your effectiveness.

  1. Go with the flow. Effective river runners can see the current in the river, and they are able to keep their boat in the current to move efficiently downstream. A new guide who has not yet learned to see the current is constantly fighting their way downstream while motoring through all of the back eddies. Whether rowing or motoring in the river, not taking advantage of the current expends more energy and is physically draining. Learning to see the current and stay in the flow is more efficient and effective.

Conversations also have a flow. Sometimes people are so afraid of holding a difficult conversation for fear of a negative outcome, that what they fear becomes reality due to the focus of their attention. Noticing where you are in the conversation and where that conversation is headed allows you to control the direction and reach your destination. This requires you to let go trying to control every aspect, stay in the flow, and let the conversation take you where it will go, making minor adjustments as needed to meet your goal.

Following these seven tips for managing your conversations will help you approach the task with more confidence and allow you to achieve a successful and desirable outcome. Just like running the river, being prepared with the proper skills along with a willingness to practice, will help you to master the conversational dynamics that will lead to your success.

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