Challenging Conversations – Be Present AND Show It

Dead Poet's Society CoverEven if you’re fully present during a challenging conversation, the person you’re speaking with may not get the full benefit if your physical behavior does not demonstrate it. Being fully present—and showing it—demonstrates that you care and that you are interested in working together to resolve the matter at hand.

You demonstrate you are fully present by the use of attending behaviors. One of the simplest ways to learn these attending behaviors is to observe others who model these behaviors. Think of someone in your life who makes you feel as if they are fully present during conversations. What do they do? Please share in your comments.

The movie Dead Poets Society contains a critical scene in which Robin Williams’ character, Mr. John Keating, gets a visit from Neil, a young man in his English class who comes to him with a problem. I encourage you to rent this movie and watch how in this scene Mr. Keating beautifully models the following attending behaviors:

  • As Neil comes into his office, Mr. Keating stops what he’s doing and gets up from his chair.
  • He makes his guest comfortable by getting him a cup of tea.
  • There is an appropriate distance to show interest—but not too much interest. Personal distance is cultural, but you can tell if a person is uncomfortable.
  • He squares up. By facing the person directly, you show your focus is on them.
  • Mr. Keating gets the conversation started but then stops and listens.
  • He makes good eye contact throughout the conversation.
  • He lets his emotions show without calling attention to himself when he observes the young man’s pain.
  • During pauses, he remains focused while waiting for Neil to continue. Note that Mr. Keating doesn’t look like he’s thinking about what he should say next.
  • He leans in. Leaning back can appear defensive, evaluative, or disinterested.
  • While you can’t see it in the frame, you can tell from Mr. Keating’s posture that his arms and legs are uncrossed. This is a universally recognizable sign of openness.
  • When there is a good opportunity to say something, he asks a question rather than immediately handing out advice.
  • He keeps his comments short and to the point.
  • Mr. Keating keeps his voice down—not monotonous, but without dramatic fluctuations in tone or pitch. A voice that is higher pitched than one’s normal voice denotes tension. A lower tone is calmer. Calm is good. In fact, he becomes even quieter when things get emotional, but he never loses focus.
  • He waits for the answer. Note that he doesn’t make a point until the answer comes back empty.

Demonstrating that you are fully present is critical to challenging conversations. Not only does it show that you are interested and that you care, it also provides you with a wealth of information from the other person’s nonverbal behaviors—body language, facial expressions, and tone. It involves engaging both your eyes and your heart in the conversation.

About the author

John Hester is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies who specializes in performance and self-leadership.  This is the third in a series of articles on Challenging Conversations.  For more on this subject, be sure to read John’s first two posts, Preparing for a Challenging Conversation  and  6 Ways to Get Rid of Emotional Baggage BEFORE a Challenging Conversation.

8 thoughts on “Challenging Conversations – Be Present AND Show It

  1. This is one of my favorite movies. However, I missed the details of this particular scene. Definitely will go back and see what you talk about in action.

  2. Great movie. Great reference. Great tips.
    How do we apply these techniques in difficult conversations that we may need to steer back on topic? I find that these are great methods to show that you are listening and that you are interested, but often difficult conversations are the ones we, as leaders, initiate. I would be interested in your perspective.

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  5. This is an excellent article! Thank you for sharing this wonderful and important insight!

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