Project Practitioners > What Do You Want?

What Do You Want?

By DeAnna Burghart

Next time you're stuck in a meeting or conversation that seems to be going around and around (and around and around), stop and ask one simple question: "What do you want out of this?"

Here's the catch: The person you're asking is you.

Too often, we allow ourselves to get caught up in the adrenaline of proving our case. This is especially true in technical disciplines, where the drive to demonstrate the error -- whatever it is -- may overpower any thought of actually fixing the problem. I've been guilty of this time and again in every imaginable venue. It's just so satisfying when people recognize how right you are, isn't it? But it's not nearly as productive as agreeing to get something done and move forward.

Apparently I use this technique a lot more than I realized, both aloud and silently, because a few weeks ago our teenager threw it back at me in the middle of a heated discussion. There I was, heading in to a full-steam diatribe, when she calmly asked me, "Mom, what do you want to happen here?" The funny thing is, I don't even remember what I was so on about. I just remember the abrupt way her perfectly reasonable question brought me up short. I stopped, took a breath, and as I recall I said something about wanting her to do (not think) something differently than she had been. To which she replied something along the lines of "Well, I still think you're wrong, but OK then," and did it. (I love that kid, even if she's not really a kid anymore.)

I wouldn't recommend taking that approach with authority figures on a regular basis. It got my back up. But it also cooled the conversation off very quickly, like a blast of cold water. If only I'd asked that question myself, it wouldn't have heated up in the first place. I'd gotten so wrapped up in making her see my point of view that I'd forgotten my point. I can remember more than a few business meetings that have collapsed under the same weight -- some because I dug in, some because others did. I hear stories about it all the time, too. It's a common human failing. (See, for example, any governmental or international decision-making body on the planet.)

If you can maintain a calm, dignified, respectful tone, "What do we want out of this?" is a useful question that may help to refocus a conversation. But even if you don't dare ask it out loud, defining for yourself what action or outcome you want makes your own communication more deliberate, more goal-oriented, and probably less emotionally charged. It also prompts us to consider what concrete results or choices we might be striving for, and whether they are reasonable or rational. If you can't name a goal, or if your quieter brain indicates the goal isn't really reasonable ("Everyone just AGREE WITH ME" is a favorite of mine) then it might be time to talk less and listen more, or even to take a break and revisit the conversation later.

Want to really go out on a limb? Consider sharing your goals out loud. That will really get you talking!




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