How much pressure should I exert when talking to people?
Interaction is the process of two or more people communicating with each other, most often by means of talking. For most managers, interacting by means of speech is their primary method of getting things done – their work consists largely of talking. When interacting, managers need to determine which topics to discuss and what tone of voice to use in order to achieve their targets. They can deliberately increase pressure by pushing the other person or decrease pressure by putting the other at ease.
Instead of just letting an interaction unfold haphazardly, the Interaction Pressure Gauge demonstrates that there are three levels of effective interaction pressure that managers can use, depending on both their objective and the person and situation they are dealing with. Each of these pressure levels produces a constructive tension, drawing the other person into participating in a meaningful dialogue. At the same time, the model points out that managers need to stay away from the opposite extremes of no pressure/tension (pacification) and destructive pressure/tension (polarization).
There are five generic types of interaction, from low to high levels of pressure:
- Circumvent. When managers decide not to bring up an issue but to sweep it under the rug and engage in small talk instead, we speak of circumvention. Such avoidance behavior may occur when managers feel uncomfortable bringing up the topic (fear of awkwardness), or feel unsafe if there is any danger of negative reactions (fear of repercussions). Typical circumventive interaction is filled with polite platitudes and empty assurances that ‘everything is fine’.
- Converse. When managers do bring up an issue but the tone of voice is an appreciative invitation to explore the topic together, we speak of a conversation. In this type of dialogue constructive tension is created by encouraging the other to bring in new ideas and/or different perspectives. Key to an effective conversation is recognizing the other as a full partner in discussions by active listening and building arguments together.
- Challenge. We speak of challenging when managers bring up an issue and critically emphasize the difference between their perspective and the other’s, asking the other to close the gap. The constructive tension can be based on a gap in beliefs (‘our views differ, you should change your mind’) or a gap in behavior (‘I expect a different conduct, you should change your actions’). Such challenging interaction can be rather one-directional (‘I think you should step up’) or more like a two-directional debate (‘we seem to disagree’).
- Confront. Confrontation occurs when managers bring up an issue and make it clear that certain behaviors or results are unacceptable. A challenging manager sets the standard but still leaves room for debate, whereas a confronting manager makes the norm explicit and demands compliance. While this interaction is highly pressured (‘this is how I want you to behave’), it still qualifies as a constructive tension since clarifying expectations and setting behavioral rules allow the other person to either align or leave.
- Conflict. Conflict happens when managers bring up an issue and the other person reacts by defending his/her position and by trying to win the argument. The interaction is no longer a positive-sum activity, aimed at reaching a common goal, but a zero-sum game, in which only one can win. Such a conflict, which can quickly become emotional, can be due to the other person’s unwillingness to listen or handle disagreements, but it can also be due to the manager’s destructive intention to blame or condemn.
- There is no such thing as ‘one best way’. Though many training programs would have you believe that there is ‘one best way’ of interacting, there are in fact several methods to interact effectively in between the two extremes of circumvent and conflict (our human default flight and fight behaviors).
- People tend to have a preference. People generally feel more comfortable with one type of interaction, thus often ignoring the other types. This preference can be due to habit/skill (practice makes perfect) but can also be due to fear (fear of conflict pushes people to the left, fear of looking weak pushes people to the right).
- Encouraging vs. demanding leadership. A person’s favorite level of pressure even translates into his/her dominant leadership style. Encouraging leaders tend to stick to the left (with circumvent as their pitfall), while demanding leaders stay to the right (with conflict as pitfall).
- You can steer your way of interacting. It pays to consciously set an interaction pressure level. Successful managers purposely select a certain level and are able to adjust the pressure up or down during the interaction depending on how things unfold.
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