“Zinnias Make Great Listeners” – Who are Your Zinnias?

What was the last high-stakes conversation you initiated? How prepared did you feel going into it? Perhaps this was delivering performance evaluations to team members, or maybe it was applying for a new job, or something entirely different. Such conversations can be as daunting as playing a musical instrument in front of an audience, delivering a speech, or acting in a play. Because there isn’t a wider audience, though, we usually don’t treat high-stakes conversations the way we treat delivering a musical performance. But if you’ve ever come out of such a conversation and felt uneasy about the outcome, you might wish you’d been able to rehearse it beforehand.

A manager friend, who recently received a promotion and is now engaging in high-stakes conversations as a key part of her new role, says that to prepare for one such meeting last week she walked through the company’s garden space and practiced delivering feedback to the flowers. “Zinnias make great listeners,” she says. She was then able to refine her thoughts and practice again with her manager, which provided another level of iteration before the high-stakes meeting itself.

Role-playing an important conversation out loud before it happens can be incredibly helpful. In the first instance this might be with flowers or a pet, but after that, finding a trusted partner or group to practice with does a number of things:

  1. It helps structure your thoughts. Practicing a conversation out loud enables you to sort through what’s at the core of what you want to say and brings clarity you don’t find when it’s only in your thoughts.
  2. It provides feedback, support, and iterative growth. Asking the partner to respond in a variety of ways within the role-play will help you to think through objections you may face, how you might find agreement and common ground, and/or how to advocate for the change you want to see.
  3. It helps to build muscle memory and confidence. Just like going to the gym repeatedly, you build conversational muscles over time. This doesn’t happen overnight – and just like trying something new at the gym, you might even feel sore or uncomfortable after the first few times – but practicing the scenario repeatedly helps you to prepare for the wrinkles and nuances that may come up, building your confidence and your ability to be agile in the moment to react to what comes up.

This Week’s Tip:

Find your “Zinnias”. Find one trustworthy person – or a small group of people – that can help you practice an upcoming high-stakes conversation (or re-do one you’ve had that you wish had gone differently). Offer to help them practice a conversation they have coming up also, and be a good listener for them. You may find that there’s value in planning a regular meeting time for your partnership or small group to support each other in this on an ongoing basis! If you’re not sure who those people might be yet, find some real-life zinnias or other flowers and plants to practice with – they won’t give you the feedback that people will, but hearing your own voice out loud will still be beneficial as you practice a high-stakes conversation (and may help the plants grow, even if you’re practicing corrective feedback!).

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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