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July 23, 2019

The Art of Sensitive Conversations – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie


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"During a conversation, it is better to have an understanding without words, than words without understanding."

- Amit Kalantri, Indian author (1988- )

The Art of Sensitive Conversations

I'm not a native English speaker, but the idioms found in the language have fascinated me for many years. I mean, can you picture someone being as happy as a dog with two tails? Or what a bull in a china shop would actually look like?

Thinking about bulls in china shops reminded me of a conversation I had a few months ago. 

My husband and I had recently moved to a new town, and I had joined various organizations to get involved in the community, and to get to know some people.

One of the groups I joined invited all the new members for coffee at a local restaurant. However, I find it socially awkward to have coffee in a public place with a bunch of people I don't know. 

I was last to arrive. I took my seat and quickly introduced myself to the people closest to me. As the formal introductions were about to begin, the chairperson's phone rang and he had to take the call.

Enter Mrs Bull, a petite, youngish woman. She was one of the new members, but she had the confidence to start asking people around the table all kinds of questions.

The Discomfort of Not "Reading" Sensitive Conversations

A few seats to my left was a very quiet man. He seemed even more awkward than me. Mrs Bull's first question to him was quite personal, and he looked reluctant to answer, yet politely did so. 

Obviously, his discomfort went right over her head, or maybe that's what fueled her next volley of questions. Mrs Bull was now in full-on "smash the porcelain" mode!

When it became clear that the man was dealing with quite difficult circumstances in his life, it was as if she couldn't stop herself. She just had to satisfy her curiosity without any regard for how the other person felt.

I was so upset about this seemingly intelligent woman's lack of sensitivity that I don't remember much else about that meeting. Mrs Bull's irritating behavior also served as a warning to me that it would probably be best to keep her at arm's length. 

Unfortunately, the man never returned to any of our community projects. And really, who could blame him?

It was this example of a lack of conversational sensitivity that inspired our recent #MTtalk Twitter chat.

We enjoyed an hour of discussion and debate with our followers, and here's a selection of the replies we had to our questions:

Q1. What's the purpose of conversational sensitivity?

@harrisonia Conversational sensitivity is important because everyone has triggers. We shouldn't need to walk on eggshells around others, but we should also be in control of our actions and behavior by not offending them.

@BrainBlenderTec Conversational sensitivity's purpose is to not alienate others while still having open dialogue and sharing ideas.

Q2. What does a lack of conversational sensitivity look like?

Insensitivity has many faces: it can look rude or uncaring, interrupt, or always know better. And that's not all…

@MicheleDD_MT Dominating a conversation and not allowing quieter people to speak or to get a word in. Talking over someone.

@hd_recruiter A lack of conversational sensitivity leads to people or employees feeling alienated or uncomfortable. It may be asking too many questions, pressuring for answers, or even not allowing someone to speak up. It is uneven and unproductive.

Q3. What signs should you look out for to see if someone is comfortable with your conversation?

@Midgie_MT I'd look for nonverbal language, whether they are comfortable with things and whether they attempt to change the topic of the conversation.

@vrajshahspeaks Is the person interested in your conversation? Do they understand what you say and revert back to you positively? Do they maintain eye contact? What about their gestures, tone of voice?

Q4. When is it not appropriate to ask questions?

@CaptRajeshwar When a person is under big stress due to any reason at home, in the office, love, kids, or finance. Especially don't bombard them early in the morning, give them time to settle in.

@Yolande_MT If something is none of your business, it's none of your business. Don't ask questions and tout it as "it's because I care." You can care without knowing all the detail.

Q5. When should or shouldn't you offer advice?

Most participants agreed that unsolicited advice is unwelcome in sensitive conversations. Other standpoints included:

@Dwyka_Consult When asked, give advice from a position of humility and with loads of wisdom and discernment. You also don't always have to tell everything you know.

@BRAVOMedia1 When someone is speaking not for advice, but to be heard and understood.

Q6. How do you balance sensitive conversations while maintaining direction?

@SizweMoyo Listen honestly while the other person is talking. When they're done, continue the conversation on the points that actually matter to the current conversation. They might have mentioned their dead dog but if it doesn't affect the cupcake recipe, don't follow it.

@MicheleDD_MT Don't lose sight of the purpose of the conversation, yet be patient and open to shifting direction or postponing the conversation, if needed.

Q7. In what ways might you be almost too sensitive in a conversation?

@Midgie_MT Might be too sensitive and not ask if the person wants to talk about things. Avoiding the subject completely is not a good thing. At the very least, acknowledge things.

@BRAVOMedia1 When you leave the conversation feeling as though you were not heard or understood.

Q8. How do you deal with someone who fails to grasp that a conversation is sensitive?

One course of action is to make them aware of it. Chances are they're not aware of how insensitive they are.

@BrainBlenderTec Find out what their issue is, as it could be they just aren't speaking the same language.

Q9. How can you develop your conversational sensitivity?

@Dwyka_Consult Be quick to listen and slow to speak.

@chiunya_tendai Should be introspective and reflect on reactions experienced after your engagements. A little 360-degree self-evaluation would help too.

Q10. How will you demonstrate sensitivity in your next conversation?

@Yolande_MT "Speak in such a way that others love to listen to you. Listen in such a way that others love to speak to you." - Anonymous

@vrajshahspeaks Listen first, understand the tone and requirements, be loyal, be generous, allow others to share their thoughts, and keep personal feelings out of the conversation.

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.

Coming Up

Talking with sensitivity and being considerate toward others go hand in hand. Next time on #MTtalk, we're going to discuss how we can be more considerate toward others, and the difference it can make in a workplace.

In our Twitter poll this week, we want to know why you think it's important to be considerate of others. Cast your vote, here.


In the meantime, here are some resources relating to sensitive conversations (some resources may only be available to members of the Mind Tools Club):

The STREET*CREDS Model For Savvy Conversations

Good Manners in the Office

Perceptual Positions

Developing "Character"

The COIN Conversation Model

Managing Your Boundaries

How to Apologize

Cross Cultural Business Etiquette

How to Be Tactful

The Art of Concise Conversations

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