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How to challenge and retain a productive conversation

How to challenge and retain a productive conversation

In my last blog I wrote about the need to integrate challenge with collaboration in order to achieve an effective outcome. In this week’s blog I will discuss some of the behavioural strategies that Huthwaite research has revealed over the years, to be important when it comes to having the type of creative and productive conversations that collaborative challenge should deliver.

In this blog I’m going to start by considering which behaviours can create an atmosphere of collaboration. First of all, when it comes to working collaboratively I think it is important to demonstrate that you are actually listening to the other person. Whenever I have done counselling training or workshops the principle of listening has been taken to the extreme where in the counsellor role you focus all your attention on the other person, and you either repeat or paraphrase everything they say. This has always felt a bit extreme to take into business situations, but in Huthwaite we have two behaviours that we recommend you use to help demonstrate that you are listening to the other person and ensure that you minimise the level of misunderstanding or misconceptions that arise when two people are talking. One is a behaviour that we call Testing Understanding, which is basically asking questions that sound like: “Are you saying that…”, and the other is the good old-fashioned Summary.

Listening is not just about listening to the words; it’s also about listening to the feelings. Last week I attended a lecture by Dr Martyn Newman, at Sheffield Hallam University Business School, where he talked about our decisions and behaviour being primarily driven by our emotions rather than by rational thinking. So demonstrating understanding of how the other person is feeling again helps them to feel heard and understood, and helps to create a climate of trust. Asking questions demonstrates that you are showing an interest in the other person but questions, when used well, can also be a challenging behaviour, which I will discuss in my next blog. What is essential when it comes to building collaboration is the use of, what Huthwaite call, the Reacting behaviours – Support, Disagreement and Defend/Attack. Support is demonstrating agreement with the other person’s opinions and proposals. Disagreement is disagreeing with their ideas or opinions. Defend/Attack is also a form of disagreement, but this time it is personal. Whereas the message in Disagreement is: “I don’t like your idea” the message in Defend/Attack is: 'I don’t like you', or 'I think that you are stupid'

To create a feeling of collaboration you need to show Support for the other person. This means finding the areas of common ground on which you can both agree. Sometimes, when we hear a proposal or an opinion put forward with which we don’t agree, or we think we have a ‘better’ idea or opinion it is human nature to jump in with giving our own idea or opinion straightaway, without even acknowledging what the other person has said. The key to showing effective Support is to find the elements of the other person’s idea that you can agree with, and show Support for those. This ensures that the other person feels acknowledged and heard, before you move into challenge their thinking.In negotiation we call this finding a common ground, which you use to build a climate of trust. Our negotiation research has also found that when you lock horns with the other party over an issue, going back to the common ground and restating the mutual benefits of what you are trying to achieve can help break deadlock and move things forward. Focusing on Support does not mean becoming a ‘yes person’ as you will lose the ability to constructively challenge. It does mean using Support to help ease discussion through difficult issues where you may struggle to reconcile opposing points of view. In the next blog I will consider challenging behaviours in more detail. For more information on how Huthwaite can help you analyse and potentially change your own behaviour please click here.

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About the Author
Dr Janet Curran

Written by Dr Janet Curran

Dr Janet Curran is a research specialist, verbal behaviour expert and coach. Working with companies around the world she helps them to optimise their performance in key business interactions. Recent projects include evaluating the relationship between sales and marketing, identifying the challenges faced by procurement professionals in building internal relationships, and the critical role of coaching in behaviour change. She is a speaker and a key contributor to the Management Consultancy Association’s Consultancy Buyers Forum.