Can you visualize the anchor of a boat? How when you lower it to the bottom of a sea or lake, you’re automatically limiting how much it will drift (move) from that central point? Even as the winds kick-up & the waters get murky and unsettled, if you’ve “dropped a good and sturdy anchor”, set a song foundation, you won’t drift far off course from where you want to be after the storm has passed.
In the past two weeks I’ve been involved in, as well as witnessed, challenging conversations where one of the parties has had to be brought back to the central point of the discussion because they we going off on a tangent. When you encounter this during a difficult personal or professional conversation, it’s also sometimes referred to as “deflection”. Simply put, a “deflection” is simply a way to avoid discussing what really matters in a conversation. This can be either a conscious or unconscious act, and it is typically a self-defense mechanism when someone doesn’t agree with the direction the conversation is headed.
When I’ve worked with people or friends who share with me that they just don’t understand why they’ve just had a conversation where they weren’t able to make their “point stick”, the scenarios typically sound like
- I wasn’t able to get closure because the other person brought up parallel off-topic conversations that just ended up confusing me, and now that I have clarity again it’s too late, the person is gone
- She’s so charming and witty, that when I try to express my disappointment or frustration with her behavior, I always give up and the conversation never seems to address the critical points I needed to address
- We ended up talking about everything “under the sun” & never were able to address the real issues that mattered
- She kept giving me push back and excuses as to why things didn’t work, but I could never “pin her down” on the critical & obvious factors that demonstrated she just wasn’t performing
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? Well, unless you’re extremely disciplined & have laser focus, the quickest & easiest solution is “anchoring the conversation”. Anchoring a conversation is typically done by establishing an agenda of topics to discuss before-hand, and it’s important that you stick to his agenda. Print the agenda out & make sure you “tick-off” each item as you address them. When your counterpart(s) goes off on a tangent, out of respect give them 30 seconds or up to 1-2 minutes to see if their point will eventually be relevant, or coming back to center, and if not, respectfully interrupt them, reminding them of the point at hand. Another good tip is to send the agenda ahead of time so that the person has an opportunity to prepare themselves to address the points at-hand.
If this is not a business meeting, then there are less obvious ways to establish an agenda that you want to stick to. Simply grab a piece of paper and write down the main topics or points you want to address or express. Keep them visible & in front of you so that you don’t leave the table or conversation without having ticked off and gotten closure on all the points. Allow the object of your conversation to see your list so that they realize how serious and prepared you are, and that you are going to hold them accountable to addressing each point.
If you’re afraid of confrontation and want to be more subtle, a good trick/tool I’ve used in the past is to write key-words or phrases on a whiteboard or shopping list which is situated behind the person when they sit down, thus allowing me to follow my rational without tipping them off to my memory aid (discussion anchor).
Now the last bit, and you may want to write this in the margins as “notes to self”, is to determine what you want to get from each point of the conversation. Why are you bringing this up? How is it affecting you? How much of the point you’re addressing or raising is negotiable? What is the scope of your negotiability? How much are you willing to compromise? What’s really important to you? I’m sure you can think of many more criteria to consider, but this should give you an idea of how important it is to focus & prepare for difficult conversations. Be they with peers, bosses or life-partners, unless you’re willing to consistently walk away from the table with disappointment, I would encourage you to anchor your next conversation.
I should have precluded that an additional aspect to effective communication, even more important than “standing firm”, is to take all emotion out of the conversation. Try not to let yourself get angry or frustrated, and a list (anchor) will help you do this. Have the conversation when you’re in a calm state, and leave plenty of time for slippage so that you don’t risk running out of time. I generally allocate 30 minutes more than I think I will need.
I hope this tip works for you & and next time you want to improve your odds of an effective conversation… as they say in the merchant marines… “anchor away”!