Winning Conversations: 5 Principles to Help You to Say it More Effectively and Hear it More Clearly

We’ve all been there; that feeling of stuck, of impasse, when we’re trying to understand, or be understood, and the conversation seems stalled.  Try as we might, no amount of words seems to help us communicate effectively and we end up feeling frustrated, angry, or hurt.

What’s going on? 

Often our conversations, especially the seemingly truly important ones, are unsuccessful due to the fact that we’re not clear on how communication works.  We’re busy choosing words, but not speaking what we truly mean.  We’re waiting for our turn to speak, and not really listening to what the other person is actually saying.

Here are 5 principles that I’ve found can help you say it more effectively and hear it more clearly.

(1.)    Know what success looks like, and what it doesn’t!

To often in life, we confuse “success” with victory or dominance over someone else, when it’s actually about reaching an agreement that benefits both parties.  Bottom line, “winning” in a conversation is about ensuring you successfully get your meaning across and that you clearly understand what’s coming back to you from the person you’re speaking with.

So start with a clear sense of your purpose or, as we said in the Army, “know your mission!”  Before you begin talking, know as best as you possibly can why you’re saying what you’re saying, and what is the end state you are trying to get to.

Purpose provides focus, focus promotes clarity, and clarity increases the odds of a successful outcome.

Always remember that the goal of communication is the transfer of meaning from one mind to another.  “Meaning,” what we think or believe is significant and why, is something that is created by us as individuals and we also negotiate with others.  We are not just individuals, but members of communities and both have a say in what things “mean.” 

Concepts like good, bad, fair, unfair, right, wrong, kind, and unkind, and a whole host of other values are concepts that we have beliefs about individually, but that we also have to reach agreement on with other people so we know we’re operating from the same “rulebook.”

Given this fact, we need to communicate as clearly as we can what we believe the rules are from our mind to someone else’s, and vice versa.  The conversation is the vehicle that makes that transfer happen both ways; that’s its’ goal and if you’re talking for any other reason you may be doing a lot of things, but you’re probably not “communicating.”

So know what it is you want to say, but don’t assume the other person automatically knows what you mean when you say it.  Their “rulebook” may be a little different than yours.

(2.)    Know your own language because your words are always based on the story of who you are, what you’ve seen, and what you believe about the world.

We are the only species that is capable of “symbolic reasoning.”  Simply put, for human beings the same “thing” can have many meanings.  A vertical line and a horizontal line intersecting can be a plus sign, or a cross, or a 4 way stop on a map.  It depends on the context.

The meaning of different words and concepts, however, can vary tremendously based upon the culture, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or age of the speaker and the listener.  As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.”

Our biology impels us to try to make meaning of our life experience so that it can be shared with others of our species.  This is part of our evolutionary heritage and what makes us human.  The words we use, as such, have meaning that is based on both who we are and the stories of our life that gives these words, these symbols for language, their meaning.

Try this experiment.  Get a visual image in your mind when you read each of these words: 







Police Officer


Okay, my guess is the visual image you got was not the written definition of each word from the Webster’s dictionary.  You probably got a picture, but did you notice that your picture was most likely pretty specific. 

These words are essentially gender, age, and ethnicity neutral, but again my guess is for some words you got a male image (Police officer) and others female (Nurse), or perhaps an actual image of a person from your past who did these jobs.  Some images were older and others younger; some were of an ethnicity like your own and others different.

What you just did in this experiment was gain some insight into how these words and their meaning can be unique based on your life story.  If you had a bad experience with a teacher of a certain age, gender, and ethnicity, how did that effect your reaction to the word based on the visual image you obtained.

Keep in mind that it’s likely other people seeing the same words may have had totally different images based on their unique life story and experiences.  Both meanings are true and, yet, each may be completely different.

So how unique might someone’s understanding of a word’s meaning be when the symbols are more complicated and we’re talking about things like loyalty, honesty, betrayal, love, honor, responsibility, and fidelity?

How important might it be for you to know your own story around these concepts so you can effectively communicate what you mean when you say them? 

How important would it be to allow someone else to share their story so you know what they truly mean when they use these words and, most importantly, why?

A question that is worth asking is always one that needs answering.  We need to know our own words so we can share it with another if we choose to do so.  We also need to make sure that we don’t assume that just because someone speaks the same words as I do, they automatically mean the same thing to them.

(3.)    Context is everything!

Language is part of a complex system of communication.  It’s one of the dots that helps us understand our world, but “before we can collect the dots, we have to collect the dots.”

So you must always pay attention to the following “dots.” Who am I that is doing the speaking?  Who am I speaking to?  Where is the conversation occurring?  Why is it happening?

Non-verbal communication and cues lend context to the words being spoken.  Pay attention to tone, breathing, body language and your feeling reaction to what you are saying and hearing.

It’s been my experience that if you simply trying to “think” your way through a conversation you can miss a lot.  Your body reaction can tell you a lot if you stop and notice it. 

Feeling confused, distracted, frightened, angry, uncomfortable, calm, happy or sad when you say or hear something is always information about some element of the conversation.  It may be about the other person, about you, or about what’s going on in the space in between the two of you as you talk.  But whatever it is, it is always information that can be extremely helpful because it’s always telling you the truth about something. 

As Alice Miller cautioned, “The mind often lies, the body never does!”

(4.)    If you want someone to say it to you, you need to be willing to say it to them.

Words are how we convey our truth.  There is a power to our emotional truth that is unique.

If you want someone to be emotionally honest with you, or find out if they are willing to do so, you have to be emotionally honest with them.  Scary at times, but it cuts down on the confusion and the time wasted by trying to convey your true meaning and avoid feeling vulnerable.

The simple fact is that honesty does, in some way, make us vulnerable, but it also sets us free as well.

To either share your emotions or not to share them is always your choice, and must be done with forethought and care.  You’re not required to open your heart to someone who is just plain insensitive; that’s like bleeding in front of a shark!

Confronting your emotional truth is about knowing how you feel, and being able to say it in a clear, direct, and non-blaming way (if you so choose). It can feel incredibly empowering. 

So ask yourself:

  • How do I feel about saying this? 
  • Do I believe it’s okay to feel this way?
  • If it’s not okay, what do I need so I can give myself permission to have whatever feeling I’m experiencing and know that they are neither good nor bad, right or wrong, they’re just the feeling I’m having in this moment?
  • How do I feel when this is said to me?
  • Is it okay for me to have my feelings in response and, if not, what do I need to help me make it okay?

Emotional truth is based on the premise that you and the person you are speaking with, are both deserving of courtesy and respect.  You are both entitled to feel what you feel, and these feelings belong to each of you and each of you alone. 

No one has a right to tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t feel how you feel, and no one is to blame for your feelings because they are, ultimately, always yours.

Emotional truth rests on the understanding that we are all responsible for what we do and say, but that, as individuals, we bare sole responsibility for how we feel and what we choose to do about those feelings.

(5.)    When in doubt, ASK(both of yourself and others).

To truly understand, we must be willing to ask questions, so use conversation as an opportunity to promote greater clarity.

Be willing to explore the feelings and meanings behind words.  Be open to asking your- self and others:

  • “What do I/you mean when I/you say these words?”
  • “What is the feelings behind the words?” 
  • “Do the words clearly and directly convey the meaning or are there other, better words that can be used?”
  • “Is there something I’m not saying, or that’s not being said that needs to be addressed?”
  • “What is it?”
  • “Is this the right context for the conversation?”

Conversations are like anything else in life; the more we question, the more we know.  The more we know, the better we do.

I wish you all well in your future conversations.

Good luck.

Photo credit:  Peter Nijenhuis via Flckr