Parkour is a sport of traversing environmental obstacles by running, jumping, landing and climbing, with an aim of getting from one point to another in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
If you’ve never seen it in action, you have to watch the Casino Royale scene when James Bond chases Mollaka through a construction site, which is an edge-of-your-chair, nail-biter using a series of incredible jumps off cranes, buildings and elevator shafts.
Luckily, having a conversation with a colleague doesn’t require death-defying stunts, but some of them can still feel dangerous, since people are highly stressed and raw these days. It’s important to be aware of your environment, what you want to say, how the other parties are reacting.
My client, let’s call him ‘Nick’, recently gave a compliment to an executive for “putting those guys in their place” in a meeting. As the only woman in the room, one might expect Susan wanted to do that, but she said it was “about getting the project done, not putting anyone in their place”. Her tone and facial expression communicated she was not impressed with his comment. Nick had trouble recovering, since he didn’t mean any disrespect and didn’t understand how his comment upset her so much.
Here are some tips to parkour your way through it:
1. Assumptions are the death drop
We all go into conversations with our own perspective and frame of reference, so we need to be empathetic to other people and try to understand them, rather than assume we know what motivates them or how they feel. Nick was attempting to connect with Susan against a common-enemy, but she didn’t see the situation that way at all. He assumed she would feel a certain way and it backfired. Instead, he was now the enemy.
2. Observe reactions
The best way to know if your message is getting through as intended is to watch the other person’s body language. As soon as you’ve lost someone, they will show signs like crossing legs, leaning back, turning their torso away, looking away, wrinkling their nose and eyebrows, lifting their shoulders or they may even cross their arms. Now that video calls and meetings are filling up our calendars, the only cues are face, shoulders and, occasionally, hands. With shorter attention spans, it’s important to plan your approach, be clear, concise and avoid spending time telling long stories or joking around. It may not be appreciated, especially in a group. In a virtual environment, we need to over-clarify. It’s okay to ask “how do you feel about what I suggested?”, or name what you see “it looks like you’re not happy with what I just said.”
3. Rebound with questions
Questions are the best tool I know to engage someone and keep the conversation moving. Start with their name, then ask an open question and be quiet. To keep someone talking, use the last thing they said to form your next question. For example, if an employee says ‘I’m too busy to type up meeting notes’, don’t assume they don’t want to be bothered. Asking something like, “Aside from meeting notes, what else do you do to make sure the team is capable of meeting the customer’s expectations?” will get them talking about it in their words. If you struggle with what questions to ask in a meeting, make some notes prior, so you feel more prepared.
4. Accept responsibility if you mis-step
We aren’t going to get it right every time, because communication styles differ and everything requires context. Nick, in the example, did go back to Susan later and apologized for misinterpreting the dynamic in the group. Bottom line, he felt the team members were being irresponsible and he respected Susan for holding them accountable for their parts of the project. Out of that conversation, the two found a better understanding of each other’s perspective. Small conflicts like that can open up dialogue for better communication, if you are willing to listen to each other.
Think of a meeting you had recently with a colleague that didn’t go as smoothly as you hoped. What could have been lost in translation? How could you handle the same situation differently next time? How could it open the door to greater understanding and leverage of each other’s strengths?
Conversations don’t have to be scary, but we all have moments when we don’t communicate perfectly and will stumble. Practice verbal parkour to keep it moving and bounce back.