agent of arcadia

Steering yourself through a challenging conversation with pacing and leading

In Assertiveness, Communication, Effectiveness on April 11, 2016 at 6:33 am


How many conversations do you have in a day? And how many of those conversations do you think you actually do well in? That you can walk away from thinking you handled well and said what you needed to say, delivered your message well, and got your intention across?

And while some conversations are easy to navigate, others aren’t so breezy. So how many of those conversations do you wish you could have again? And if given the chance, you would say something different, or in fact, say anything at all!

In a perfect world, all our challenging conversations would go according to plan and we would emerge with perfectly desired outcomes for both parties. And both parties would come out of the conversation stronger for it, with big smiles, skipping together through a field under a rainbow enhanced sky.

And yes, pink elephants would fly.

But plans don’t always go to, well, plan. And in a conversation where the stakes are high, such as a project conversation, or an invested or focused consultation, we want as much as possible to prevent a situation where we have to face an irate other party or handle a conversation where things have gone direly wrong.

You know the type of conversations I’m talking about. Conversations where there is conflict. Conversations that are challenging. Conversations that have the potential to damage relationships.

So what to do? The main thing is to rein in the chaos and then steer the conversation down a path you want it to go. But how to do this? Let’s have a look.

The horse that bolted

I was once told a story about the horse that bolted on the racetrack. What happened next was that a jockey on horseback emerged from the side and ran alongside the bolting horse, quite quickly, to match its pace. Then it slowly but surely relaxed its pace to a trot. The bolting horse started to slow down and follow this pace. This jockey then led both horses off the tracks and saved the day.

This is quite literally behavioral pacing and leading, a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) technique where one matches or aligns with the energy of another to take the lead. It’s a subtle way to regain control of a situation.

There are two types of pacing and leading:

  • Behavioral: This is used when you need to match someone to build rapport or quickly gain alignment of energy to regain a lead.
  • Linguistic: This is used when you strategically use certain words and frames to defuse the conflict and lead the conversation towards a next step.

Often when we are faced with conflict or a challenging conversation, we aren’t quite sure how to handle it for a variety of reasons, it may be sudden, it may be unnecessarily confrontational, but whatever the reason, if you have access to a technique that can be used immediately, you are going to be in a better position to control the communication process.

Linguistic and behavioral pacing and leading gives you the opportunity to do this. When you use this subliminal persuasion technique, you are basically matching your energy with someone where they are currently at and then taking them where you want to go.

The art of taking control

Pacing and leading is more prevalent than we think. Even if you’ve never heard of it before, chances are, you might already be using an element of it or parts of it unconsciously.

It’s a great little tool for taking control of an otherwise unpredictable and potentially volatile situation.

Years ago, when I was working in a five star establishment overseas, we were taught that if a guest approached the counter yelling and screaming because of one reason or another, we were never to yell back to be heard. We were instead, trained to keep our voices at a leveled low tone, even if a loud volume to be heard, by speaking from the diaphragm, and to match the speed of the other speaker. We were taught to match the energy, not the emotion. And certainly, under no circumstance were we allowed to raise it a decibel higher than the guest.

We were taught to then very swiftly lower our volume and speed to a steady tempo, and a calm, almost monotonous and hypnotic pace. We were taught to breathe and hold our ground, remain calm, and use the guest name to grab their attention, then verbally walk them through the conversation towards an option. And if required, to repeat the process. More often than not, we wouldn’t have to.

We were told that what would happen in a matter of seconds, is that the other person would naturally lower their volume and speak calmly and at a leveled low tone and steady pace, matching our volume, tone, and demeanor.

Now, when you’re nineteen, at your first job in a world renowned establishment, facing an irate rich guest twice your age who is verbally threatening you, staying calm to regain a lead in a challenging conversation is easier said than done. But I can attest to the success of it.

It was only years later, that I learnt that what I had been taught all those years back was indeed, to pace and lead.

Steering yourself through challenging conversations

Of course, not all conversations become quite so dramatic. But in a rogue conversation, where content is lost in the mire for any number of reasons, such as an emotional hijack or a blinding of reason, you become the target. Suddenly, you sit at the center of all that has gone wrong with the project or the product or the deadline. And when this happens, combining behavioral and linguistic pacing and leading allows you to pace and lead volume, tone, gestures, posture, breathing, body language, and visual cues.

The secret to resolving conflict is to move the person from the problem to a position where they can start to discuss a possible outcome. Not necessarily a solution, but we’re getting there. By doing so, both parties can move to a frame of mind where the focus is on the issue, not the emotions, or the nerves, or each other.

The principle of pacing and leading aims to defuse the heightened emotional energy, and to restart a conversation or rational discussion. When combined with basic communicative elements such as framing, rapport building, and active listening, pacing and leading is a powerful tool to get the conversation back on track.

Remember the bolting horse story? Exactly.

So when managing a challenging conversation, whether they be personal or professional conversations,  follow the pace and lead steps to help you to steer the conversation to a point where you can then manage objections and move the other party towards a solution, while still maintaining a valuable and respectful relationship.

Copyright © agentofarcadia 2016


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