How to manage conversational expectations (and not ruin someone’s day!)
My mother-in-law does this hilarious and very HER thing whenever she hosts a big meal at her house.
She’ll make an amazing spread with enough food to feed the whole town, and she’ll put everything out on the table in the kitchen. Before she invites you to grab your plate and “go enjoy the buffet,” she announces every dish you’re about to see:
“There’s grilled salmon, roasted brussel sprouts, roasted cauliflower, quinoa muffins, a soba noodle salad with tofu….”
She’ll let you know if a dressing is on the side or mixed in. If something’s been salted or not. And, if you have an allergy or aversion, she’ll make sure you know exactly what your options are or where to find a special plate she’s set aside just for you.
In the first few years of dating Eli, I thought this buffet announcement was endearing, but maybe a bit unnecessary. Weren’t we all about to see the spread for ourselves? Couldn’t we just ask questions if we had them?
But then it hit me: It might not be necessary, but Adina’s buffet announcement is a genius communication tool.
Because before you head to her buffet to see everything for yourself, you already know what to expect.
And when you have a general sense of what to expect, whether it’s what you’re about to eat from your mother-in-law’s buffet, or what your boss wants to talk to you about later today, a part of your brain can relax and stop guessing.
You switch out of blind anticipation mode (the perfect stimulus for your fight or flight stress response) into I-know-what’s-coming mode (the antidote!).
So next time you need to initiate a difficult conversation, give someone some tough feedback, or even promote one of your employees to a higher position, one of the kindest (and smartest!) things you can do is to let them know what’s on the “conversational buffet” ahead of time.
You might say:
Hey Joanna, can you come by my office at 4pm today? Sending her into a rabbit hole of anxious thoughts and a Tate’s cookie binge…
So instead, try saying something like:
Hey Joanna, I’d like to chat with you about your role, specifically the expectations we have for you to succeed here moving forward. You’re doing a great job with X, but I want to discuss your work in Y area. Please come by my office at 4pm today so we can discuss.
Joanna now has a chance to collect herself and anticipate what you’ll be talking about specifically. It’s not the first thing she wants to hear, but it’s better than trying to guess what’ll be “on that table” on her own.
Or let’s say one of your co-workers f*cked up. She was supposed to get something to your client by the end of the day yesterday and she completely forgot.
Instead of reprimanding her via email or scaring her with the always anxiety provoking “we need to talk,” try saying:
Hannah, yesterday’s deadline was important for a few reasons. I want to understand why it wasn’t met and talk through how to troubleshoot this kind of communication breakdown in the future.
People want to know what to expect. You don’t have to “announce” every detail, but give your co-workers a preview of what’s coming whenever possible. It’ll allow them to show up to your conversations more oriented and relaxed, which will always fuel a more productive discussion than if they come in feeling totally stressed and unsure of what’s about to happen.
So tell me…
What’s a conversation you need to have where it’d be smart (and kind!) to “announce what’s on the (conversational) buffet” ahead of time? Feel free to practice phrasing your “announcement” below.
Leave a comment and we’ll be sure to cheer you on or give you some constructive feedback.
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Thank you, as always, for reading and sharing your experiences with our community.
All my love,
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