Got a tricky conversation coming up? Try this technique.

Simon Breakspear
11 June 2024

The idea: Have three-point conversations when needed

We’ve been trained to believe ‘face-to-face’ is the best format for difficult conversations – but introducing a ‘third point’ to the conversation is actually a great way to depersonalise the situation and create space to process.

30-Second Version

  • If you have a difficult conversation coming up, direct face-to-face eye contact can actually make the conversation more charged.
  • To depersonalise the interaction, try introducing a ‘third point’ you can both look at – e.g., a whiteboard or piece of paper, a specific canvas or tool – or even just go for a walk side by side together.
  • By facing a third point together, you defuse the situation and allow the other person more space to process.

 

The Full Read

Think of a ‘difficult conversation’ being had between two people. What is the setting that springs to mind? It’s likely that you’re imagining two people facing each other directly in an office, and for good reason – that’s how many chats like this take place. But what if there was a simple technique you could use that served to defuse the situation and allow both parties space to process the conversation better?

When two people are talking to each other, there are two parties – so it’s known as a ‘two-point communication.’ However if one of them introduces a whiteboard, sheet of paper or presentation, and the other person also looks that way, you’re introducing a ‘third point’. This is therefore known as ‘three-point communication.’ It would be easy to underestimate how powerful this third point is when navigating challenging topics with a member of your team.

What three-point communication does

When you introduce a third point to your tricky conversation, you’re essentially sending a signal that instead of it being ‘me against you’, it’s ‘us against the problem’. By whiteboarding out the issues and both facing a board, or scrawling on a template or tool, you are uniting the two of you on a quest to problem solve together. Physically speaking, you’re also reducing prolonged eye contact, which depersonalises the content of the meeting and gives the other person a break from the intensity of holding your gaze if they’re feeling caught off guard. You’ll also have a tangible output at the end of the conversation which, serves as a codified shared understanding of the conversation, and is also helpful to refer back to.

When to use two-point versus three-point communication

The rule of thumb goes, that if the conversation is positive, try to do a two-point conversation. Praise, positive feedback and celebration are best done with eye contact facing each other. However, if you’re gearing up for a conversation that has the potential to be tense or challenging, aim to introduce a third point.

Conversations that might benefit from a three-point approach:

  • Project reflection – using data to gauge progress
  • Developing strategic priorities
  • Reviewing team dynamics
  • Working through alternative positions
  • Prioritising what will or will not be done

A big piece of my own work is developing tools or templates that can structure specific challenging conversations between individuals and teams. You can check out my tools page here.

Challenge → Next time you have a tricky conversation, try introducing a third point like a whiteboard, template or tool. Take the opportunity to sit alongside someone while together you utilise or focus on the third point. You will notice it puts the other person at ease and facilitates a better outcome.

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