Prepare your stories

In my last post in this Dialogue Skills series, I talked about learning and that fact that real learning requires practice. So how can you practice dialogue skills?

Perhaps the easiest situation is when you are expecting a meeting or conversation to be somewhat difficult. You know the other people there are likely to hold different views, and you may even know roughly what those views will be. Situations like that used to make me nervous! But now, I’m able to look at them as a golden opportunity to practice my dialogue skills.  :-)

Seeing these discussions as convenient practice opportunities makes me less nervous and better prepared. So in the next few post I’ll outline some tips, based on what’s worked for me over the last few years. Each tip involves some mental preparation before the meeting, so that when the meeting comes you’ll be ready. In the meeting, if it goes roughly as you expected, the time will come when you can put your preparation into action. It might work very well; it might work less well. The key point is to find opportunities to keep practicing, over weeks and months, so that gradually you’ll meet with increasing success.

In the short term meanwhile, you may find these discussions almost immediately become less stressful, once you see them as welcome opportunities for practice instead of dreaded confrontations!

 Tip 1: Prepare your stories

As I outlined in my People Skills talk, telling a true story is one of the most powerful persuasion techniques and also one of the easiest to use – even when trying to persuade people who out rank you. So before the meeting or discussion, ask yourself why do you hold your different view? Have you seen things done very successfully “your way” in the past? If so, there’s your story! Tell the true story of that success. Have you seen things fail, when done in the way described by your colleagues? If so, there’s your story! Tell the true story of the problems you’ve seen.

Whether your story is one of past success or past failure, before the meeting you should give some thought to how you’ll tell it. Can you make it reasonably brief? That’s probably good. I suspect that brief and clear story will invite more interest than a longer and more boring telling of the same material. How will you begin the story? I find it helpful to have the first sentence or so clear in my head before the meeting.

For instance, say I’m involved in planning a difficult and novel change to a system. Everyone else thinks is reasonably easy, but I don’t agree. I want us to allow more time in our project schedule for dealing with the unexpected. So I might say something like this:

When I worked at [CompanyX] we had to change our product to make it available 24/7 and guarantee virtually no downtime. We thought, ‘yeah, that’s not too hard, we’ll have instant failover to a hot standby ’. But actually making it work turned out to be way harder than we expected. The work dragged on and was finished about a year late. What we’re talking about today seems like another one of those things – something that doesn’t seem too hard, but which may come back and bite us because we’ve never done it before. Can we get ourselves a better safety margin by adding some time to the schedule?”

Before the meeting, I’d get that story straight in my head. Particularly the first sentence – so that I can get the story started without waffling. Sometimes I have the whole story prepared in my head, and sometimes I just have the first sentence. In either case, what I actually say in the meeting is always different from what I’d prepared, since I hate the idea of speaking from a prepared script. Nevertheless, the preparation really helps, because I know which story I want to tell, and I know roughly how I want to tell it.

I’ve found that being prepared with relevant stories boosts my confidence and effectiveness in discussions. I hope you find the same.

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