From the coronavirus to Black Lives Matter, many of us are having tough conversations, often with people we love. Navigating difficult conversations is stressful so it helps to have a strategy when you get into them. Pacing and leading is an effective way to have better tough conversations.
Over the past couple months, I’ve had a lot of conversations that were way deeper—and way more uncomfortable—than I’m used to having. I have people I’m close to who disagree with me about very fundamental issues. From what we should be doing about the coronavirus, to how effective the Black Lives Matter protests are, to more mundane topics like “how much time is enough time for a hobby?”
I’ve also had some discussions with younger family members who are having difficulty talking to their older parents or coworkers about these sensitive topics. I bet we are all experiencing this. We don’t know what we can say, or what the other person thinks, or why they can’t hear what we’re saying. We dance around the subject and leave feeling frustrated.
I don’t think there are any fool-proof answers, but I do believe there are effective strategies. The one we discussed in detail on our latest podcast is called “pacing and leading.” It is a persuasion technique that aims to slowly get the other person closer to your side.
But here’s the great thing about it. It doesn’t just help you navigate big, sensitive topics. It can help you have productive conversations about anything. Knowing it will simply make you a better conversationalist.
WHAT IS PACING AND LEADING?
Pacing and leading is a technique. A strategy. A way of speaking to another person that can be applied no matter what the topic or situation. (Though doing it well takes practice, like anything else!)
At the core of pacing and leading is one core principle: you can’t have a productive conversation unless you can find common ground. Conversations are based on connection. When we don’t relate to each other at all, we can’t get anywhere. The connection must come first.
Pacing and leading helps establish this connection.
Pacing is really the critical part. It involves establishing a connection and showing the other person you understand them.
It starts with stating something about the topic that you and the other person can both agree is true. This establishes a common ground from which to base everything else. You may need to go pretty broad to find this truth, depending on how far apart you are. For example, someone who is pro-police and someone who is pro-protester may have difficulty agreeing on much.
But perhaps they can agree that all people want to feel safe in their communities? Or that mistakes made by individuals have a tendency to be attributed to the entire group? Or that systematic incentives (and disincentives) are driving behaviors on both sides?
Once you have a common ground, you then state something the other person believes to be true. You don’t have to agree. The key point here is you are establishing that you understand their position. Nobody wants to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t understand them. Show you understand them.
Once you’ve done this, you can begin to lead the person back to your side of the argument. You’ve met them where they are—you’ve paced them—and the rest of the conversation is about establishing the outcome you hope to achieve—aka leading them where you want them to go.
You can lead them to many places. It could be to understand your point of view. It could be to validate your different experience. It could be to change their mind or get them to agree to your proposal. It could simply be to get them to continue the discussion at another date.
The important point is: if the other person doesn’t feel a connection with you, and doesn’t believe you understand their point of view, you will never be able to get them to your side. You have to pace them—meet them where they are—and then lead them back to where you want them to be.
Is this easy? No way!
Does it happen in one conversation? Rarely!
Does it work? If success means changing their minds, no, not 100% of the time. But if success means having a productive conversation and maintaining a healthier relationship with the other person, then it certainly does.
OTHER PACING AND LEADING TECHNIQUES
We can mostly think of pacing and leading as “finding common ground.” But common ground does not have to be a “shared truth.” It can be any number of things, both verbal and non-verbal. Here are some other pacing and leading techniques that can help you be more persuasive in your conversations.
FIND COMMON LIKES, DISLIKES, OR EXPERIENCES
Sales people always try to find out where you are from, what you like or dislike, or something about you that they can connect with. Then they emphasize that connection to make you feel like you are just like them.
This works because a shared like or dislike, or a shared experience, establishes a form of “common ground” that enables you to build a relationship of trust. If you want to lead someone to your point of view, emphasizing areas where you are the same will help you establish that trust.
MIRROR BODY LANGUAGE AND WORD USAGE
People pick up on lots of social cues without even realizing it. We are subconsciously monitoring everyone around us for these signals. When someone around us is standing like us, or using similar hand gestures, or using a similar phrase or word, we notice it. We subtly feel closer to them, even if we can’t explain why.
When you are engaging in a difficult conversation, look for opportunities to mirror what the other person is doing. Don’t go overboard, but pick and choose your spots. If they repeat a certain phrase, use that phrase. If they make a specific gesture with their hands, repeat it with your example. This can really assist you in establishing a connection.
PARAPHRASE THEIR POSITION
This is similar to identifying what they believe to be true. If they explain their position, repeat back what they said in your own words. Do it faithfully. Don’t try to manipulate it or spin it. You aren’t trying to “gotcha” them, you are trying to establish a connection. If they agree, they will be pleased that you understand. If they disagree, give them the opportunity to clarify.
Stating someone else’s opinion does not mean you agree with it. It just means you understand it. If you can add in a comment like, “That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way,” you will make them feel as though you have moved closer to them. The closer they feel, the more willing they will be to accept your opinion or your interpretation or your example.
PREPARE FOR THE EMOTION, STICK TO THE PLAN
One of the challenges of talking about difficult topics is that they get easily charged with emotion. You need to prepare for this. Emotion has a tendency to drive us to extremes. That’s not what you are going for. You are trying to meet in the middle.
Prepare for the emotion. You know it’s going to be there, so anticipate it. Have a plan for how you’re going to deal with it.
The other person may say something that triggers you. They may be in the mood for a fight. They may want to test your limits.
Or they may just be disengaged, which can be equally frustrating.
Have a goal for your conversation. Know where you want to lead them in the first place. Then keep working toward that goal. Keep pacing until you have an opportunity to lead. If you don’t get the opportunity, then try to get it next time. Trust that the work you did today will pay off in the future.
PACE AND LEAD IN EVERY INTERACTION
This isn’t just a technique for difficult conversations. It’s a strategy for communicating better. You may not have noticed, but I even used it in this article.
Did you notice that I made an effort to establish a shared experience? That we are all having tough conversations and want to do it better? If you agreed with that statement, you probably felt a little more understood and were a little more willing to read what I had to say. I paced you in order to lead you to my desired outcome: to consider pacing and leading as a strategy you should adopt.
Seriously, you can use pacing and leading in any communication. Try it out in your next conversation. Practice in low risk situations. Get better at it, and watch your conversations start to get more productive.
Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. He believes you will see people pacing and leading you everywhere, now that you know what to look for. You can give him feedback at bryan◎gobemore.co or on our Facebook page.