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The first 3 minutes

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Did you know that 96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a difficult conversation and even the future of the relationship, based on the first three minutes of the interaction?(1)

How do you usually open a difficult conversation? Have you ever thought about that?

Well… we all should be very mindful how we use the first 3 minutes of our next difficult conversation at home or at work. It is a rare opportunity to control the fate of the interaction and the relationship and shift it from a damaging confrontation to a meaningful exchange.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom”. Viktor E. Frankl

Think of the last difficult conversation you had with a work colleague.

Maybe your opening sentence was: “I can’t believe you said that in front of everybody in the team! Did you try to make me look bad in front of the CEO?”.

If your opening sentence contained one or more of what Dr. John Gottman found as the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse(2) - Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling you are most likely to derail the conversation and potentially the relationship itself is hanging by a thread.

“Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Ambrose Bierce

So how should we open a conversation around a conflict? What should we say in the first 3 minutes or less?

Start with a Third story(3). It is a statement that both parties can agree on for example:

“It was a challenging team meeting yesterday”.

“The argument we had yesterday escalated quite quickly”. This is a short statement and not a monologue that describes your shared reality from a “we” stance.

It is not ‘I vs. You’ stance but rather a difficult ‘We’ moment we share.

Then comes an open question: How did you feel about it? What did you think about it?

I know it is counterintuitive to start by listening rather than talking when what you really want to do is to throw this negative ball of energy to the one that you believe is to blame. You want to unload this negativity which burdens you and keeping you awake at night. This is a very natural response however incredibly unproductive.

If you used your first 3 minutes to acknowledge there is a shared problem, to ask, and then listen to your partner’s point of view before sharing yours then the chances you will generate a meaningful learning conversation will increase substantially.

To start a difficult conversation productively:

  • Learn how to frame a conflict from a “Third Story”, one that is shared and allows both stories to coexist.

  • Learn how to ask open ended questions with curiosity to invite your partner to share.

  • Learn how to listen (it doesn’t mean to agree) and acknowledge your partner’s point of view.

  • After listening you can then share your personal experience, your feelings, and your thought process and your partner will be more likely to listen as well.

Only once both parties feel heard, can you move to problem solving and ask what can we do about it?

So next time you feel angry, take a moment, breath, and then try to start the conversation from the third story and see what happens…The future of your relationships depends on that.

Would love to hear back your stories and how the first 3 min of interaction influenced the outcome of your conversations.

(1) Carrere, S., and Gottman, J.M., (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion, Family Process, Vol. 38(3), 293-301

(3) Stone, D., Patton, B. and Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York, N.Y.: Viking.

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