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Positive conversations and reaching agreement

Resources for having positive conversations and achieving good outcomes: active listening, creative thinking, asking critical questions, exploring concerns and interests, constructive conversations.

Active listening

People are often not really listening to each other in discussions or negotiations. They may be distracted, thinking about other things or about what they are going to say next. Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker, and suspending your own judgment is important. The benefits of active listening can include people opening up, avoiding misunderstandings, resolving conflict and building trust. Creating an atmosphere of cooperation helps effective problem resolution.

Things that help active listening and better communication include:

  • removing distractions eg noise from an open window; side talk from the teams
  • using body language to show you are listening
  • being quiet unless it is your turn to talk
  • asking questions to clarify what is being said
  • repeating back in your own words what the other person has said to make sure you understand
  • ask questions to identify any underlying problems and interests.

You can use our active listening self-assessment tool [PDF, 224 KB] to test yourself on your skills.

Creative thinking

Working through issues and negotiating involves parties looking for options to reach agreement. There is skill involved in engaging in a constructive conversation. Different techniques can help you to expand your thinking before you narrow the ideas down again and evaluate them for usefulness.

Here are two methods commonly used by groups to assist creative thinking:

Brainstorming tries to create as many ideas as possible in a safe and supportive environment. It can help a team to open their thinking when there are not enough ideas or the ideas are too similar, or you need to challenge the thinking of your team, yourself, or another person if you can’t make progress.

Remember during this process:

  • there are no bad ideas
  • make sure people say lots of ideas – the stranger the better
  • encourage people to build on what other people have said
  • write all the ideas where everyone can see them (eg on the white board)
  • work out the ideas you will focus on: group them together, discuss and agree on the main themes, explore the ideas individually or as a team.

Exploring other points of view extends thinking. Work out different ways of presenting the important issues, and work out how the other side might think. You aren’t trying to find the one and only way to say something but come up with options to present it differently.

You can work with the whole team or in smaller groups of three to four. Work out the roles you will work with, for example, HR Manager, union representative, employer representative, CEO/senior manager, supervisor, frontline employee, customer, and then:

  • head up the whiteboard with the role title (eg CEO)
  • ask the group to think about the problem from the perspective of the person in the role on the whiteboard and write down four to five statements that they would say about the problem
  • move on to the next role
  • discuss the different perspectives as a whole group.

Asking critical questions

During discussions and negotiations, parties need to engage in real discussion about their needs, limits and challenges. Areas of disagreement will usually come up. You should work together to identify problem areas and consider each other’s positions and proposed solutions. Asking critical questions can stimulate discussion.

Open questions

Asking questions is a basic part of negotiating, whether in team meetings, with individual employees or across the negotiation table. Asking open questions focuses on the speaker and provides an opportunity for the speaker to explain their idea. Open questions are questions that don’t have yes or no answers. Open questions can be divided into two groups: clarifying questions and probing questions.

These are questions of fact. They clarify the problem and have brief, factual answers. Some examples of clarifying questions are:

  • How did you calculate those numbers?
  • What are your priorities?
  • How many people will be attending?
  • What resources are available for this project?

These questions need deeper thinking about an issue and don’t have ready answers. Probing questions can have many responses and move thinking from reaction to reflection. They are taking another person’s perspective. Some examples of clarifying questions are:

  • What criteria did you use to…?
  • What sort of an impact do you think…?
  • Why do you think this is the case?
  • What would have to change in order for…?
  • What do you think would happen if…?
  • How was it different from…?
  • How did you conclude…?

Making progress means avoiding destructive argument through blaming, attacking, sarcasm, point-scoring, mocking and just not listening. Some questions to avoid the trap of a destructive argument are:

  • Are you listening?
  • Are you serious?
  • Do you think I’m stupid?
  • Is that your final offer?

Constructive language - no ‘buts’, use ‘and’

Parties to discussions or negotiations often have strong views that are communicated forcefully. A constructive response involves letting the other side know you heard the message but at the same time calming the situation down and promoting forward progress - an acceptable solution still needs to be found. The table provides examples of negative and inflammatory speaking and responses that might be used to create positive discussion. The tone of voice used is also very important to avoid inflaming the situation further.

Negative speaking Constructive speaking
You don’t give a toss about… I understand that you think we don’t care… but we are investing a great deal…
You can’t be trusted to do what you say unless it’s in black and white and posted on the internet. I recognise that you want some assurances that we will act on our word… I think I can provide you with…
You’re simply lying to us as usual. I understand that you don’t accept what we are saying as true… from our point of view…
Are you deaf? You clearly don’t think I have heard what you’ve said… I am happy to go back to…
You are just grandstanding. You seem to think I am just trying to attract attention here… let me explain the seriousness…

Discussion ground rules

Pay attention to your intentions

  • What is my objective from the discussion?
  • Am I willing to be influenced? If not, why bother?
  • Choose your attitude!

Balance advocacy with inquiry

  • What led you to that view?
  • What made you think that?
  • What do you mean by that – express some more?
  • Ask open questions; watch your tone and body language.
  • Be there. Be present.

Build shared meaning

  • When we use a term or words… what do we really mean?
  • What are we trying to say?
  • Shared power towards a shared vision.

User self-awareness

  • What am I thinking?
  • What am I feeling?
  • How am I contributing?
  • What can I do differently?
  • What do I want from this experience?

Remember, ask questions using “I” statements – I notice… When you say… I find myself thinking… I think this may imply something about our staff/clients… Are we sure?

Be honest and constructive.

Explore roadblocks

  • What do we agree on?
  • What do we disagree on?
  • What evidence and facts can we collect and explore?
  • Revisit our goals and values.
  • Explore everyone’s needs and interests.
  • Find common ground, problem solve. Be willing to resolve.

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