Clients and students sometimes ask me how they can motivate themselves to invest in time to prepare for a consensus-seeking conversation. In my experience, actually doing the preparation a few times produces such memorable results that we no longer have to work at motivating ourselves. We want to prepare for future interactions.
One lady I’ve consulted with (I’ll call her “Jill”) likes to prepare before conferences with her child’s teachers or school administrators. When Jill first started working with me, we prepared for a school conference from scratch. In a phone conversation, I talked her through all the steps, from getting clear on her own interests to planning good choices of words to discuss specific points.
Jill was so pleased with her first results that she now wants to prepare for any conversation that is important to her. Each time Jill begins to prepare for a new consensus-building dialogue, she feels more upbeat, calm and confident. Jill reports that learning to use the system, including the preparation, has given her an “I can do this” attitude.
I’ve also noticed that, each time we work together, Jill has already done her own preparation, so that our consultations become shorter and shorter. Jill is right. She can do this. And if she wants to check in with me as part of her preparation, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
Jill recently called me about approaching one of her daughter’s teachers about his unusual testing methods. To protect client confidentiality and respect the privacy of the teacher, I have changed the specifics of Jill’s concerns to the following: rather than testing on the students’ ability to solve problems, this math teacher gave essay questions, such as, “Summarize Chapter 2 of your book.”
Through her own preparation, Jill had realized that she had backup plans and options (see the discussion of “Walk-Away Alternatives” in Chapter 12 of Bridges to Consensus). Some people are surprised to find, as Jill has, that knowing what she will do if the conference does not go well actually increases the chances that the conference will go well.
In our phone call, we embellished Jill’s preparation with some open questions to get the teacher thinking about possible change without directly finding fault with him:
- What are the advantages of using essay questions for a math test?
- How would you compare the math skills required to pass this test with the necessary English composition skills?
- How can we assess Susan’s ability to actually solve algebra problems?
After the conference, Jill reported to me how pleasant the teacher was. I firmly believe that one reason for this was that, being prepared, Jill herself went into the conference relaxed, and therefore, was more pleasant herself.
Jill did not even find it necessary to ask all the questions we had planned, but she has them in reserve. If the testing methods do not improve, she can go back to the teacher with the remaining questions. Or if she finds it appropriate to execute her back up plan (Walk-Away Alternative), she can ask those questions of the principal. And even if she never needs to ask the remaining questions, by formulating them, Jill has developed her skill in crafting open questions for other occasions. I can’t remember a single time a client has complained that time spent in preparation was wasted.
So, to motivate yourself to prepare for consensus-seeking conversations, just take the plunge and try it. After each conversation, compare your experience with the way you think things would have gone if you had not prepared. Consider the substantive results as well as your level of calm and confidence. When you see the difference, you will know from real-life experience that preparing actually saves you time and trouble in the long run.
And for detailed examples of preparation notes, check out Chapter 5 and Appendix A of Bridges to Consensus.