Communicating in Real Time when the Stakes are High

When I wrote Honestly Speaking, I developed frameworks and strategies to make it easier for all of us to communicate better, by dialing up the empathizing and dialing down the intellectualizing. They are meant to be easy-to-use, especially over time as they become more ingrained ways of approaching communication overall.

Yet in talking about those frameworks and the lessons I shared in the book in workshops, trainings, and speeches with thousands of people in the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize one key addition I would make based on a lot of the questions from you: help communicating in real time, in the moment, when you don’t have time to rehearse.

Often when we think about communicating, especially anything of importance, we think about it in a formal or planned setting. A conversation or a presentation that we’ve played out, prepared for, and maybe even rehearsed.

But more frequently we need to communicate more spontaneously, or without the benefit of a lot of time to practice and prepare. Just think about a conversation you didn’t plan to have, but suddenly find yourself in, or some work-related crisis that came up and you have to deal with it.

What can you do to set yourself up for success here? Stop and consider three things: Principles, audience, message.

  • Principles: This is like your own personal communication brand. What words guide your words and actions, even when (or especially when) you don’t know exactly what to say? Examples might be honesty and simplicity. Related, think about what are the words you would use to describe how you want to come across? Examples might be humble, confident, calm, warm. This is something you can think about anytime. Think about it now so you’re ready when the moment calls.

A key point on style: be human. Ask yourself, “what would a reasonable person say or do in this situation?” If I were on the other end, what would I want or need to hear?

Too often when we don’t know exactly what to say or feel unprepared, we just start talking. A better instinct is to talk less, and listen more.

Train yourself to be ok with silence. These tactics can help:

  • If you don’t know, say you don’t know. This buys you time to find out and learn more, and also removes the pressure you might feel to have to respond or speak, so you can instead really listen to the other person without the distracting mental chatter of anticipating and figuring what to say.

I’d love to hear what you think. What works for you in the moment when the stakes are high?

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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