The Highway Analogy – How to Stop Other People from Derailing a Conversation Without Offending Them

Having difficult conversations can be a little like merging onto the highway.

I know this analogy sounds far-fetched… but stay with me here for just a moment.

Preparing for a difficult conversation is one of the best ways to ensure that it will be successful.

But what if the other person throws something at you that comes out of left field?

You’ve spent all this time mapping out your needs, anticipating what might be important to the other person, thinking of potential win-win solutions (more on these topics in upcoming posts!)… and all of that gets derailed in one fell swoop.

Yeesh!

So here’s the deal, as much as you can prepare for a difficult conversation, you can’t anticipate everything that the other person will say or need.

And this is where the highway analogy comes in.

If you’re clear on which topics you’d like to discuss, you can consciously assess the importance of the new topic and then decide whether you need to “speed up” or “slow down” to deal with the issue instead of just getting derailed by it.

Speeding up (in a collaborative way) is essentially saying something like – “That’s a really important topic and I’d love to discuss it with you. Let’s set up another time to talk exclusively about that so that we can give it the attention it deserves. For this meeting, let’s focus on what we decided to discuss – [insert the agenda items that ideally you would have agreed upon together beforehand.]”

Speeding up is a helpful technique when it’s more important to focus on the topics that you had intended to discuss first.

And when you can make it safe for the other person by helping them see that you’re fully committed to addressing the new issues they’ve raised (just at another time), it helps them come back to the conversation at hand.

But sometimes the thing that comes out of left field from the other person is actually more important… and needs to be dealt with first.

If that’s the case, then slowing down to talk about their topic makes sense. And here again, it’s incredibly helpful to make this explicit so that everyone knows that you’ll come back to the other topics later.

It sounds SO simple, doesn’t it?

However, I can’t tell you how many executives, managers, and professionals I’ve shared this analogy with and watched it “click” things into place for them.

The clients that I work with need to have numerous conversations with the people in their workplaces every single day… and many of them are difficult conversations. So simply strategies that can help people quickly course correct when things get off track are worth their weight in gold in my books!

This analogy came to mind for me when I worked as a workplace mediator. Part of my job was tracking the conversation between parties to help make sure that they addressed everything that they wanted to talk about.

Whether I was working with two individuals or an entire team, everyone was always clear on what would be discussed beforehand.

In some of my sessions, however, I would see parties skirting around the more contentious issues. They’d want to talk about everything else that was going on in the workplace instead of addressing the actual issues between them.

My job in those moments was to check in and find out if this is how they wanted to spend their time – essentially highlighting that they had a trained professional in the room who could help them work through their sticky issues and they could take advantage of that or they could continue to talk about things that they probably didn’t need my help to discuss.

This usually brought them back on track and they were always grateful for the intervention.

But sometimes they would let me know that they actually needed to address the issue they were talking about before they could get back to the other topics.

This was also great for me to hear! Mainly because my goal was to help ensure that they made the most productive use of their time with me. And I generally found that whatever they were discussing got wrapped up much more efficiently than it would have been otherwise. Bonus!

In other words, speeding up and slowing down was something I had to navigate constantly with parties in my work as a mediator.

People generally don’t like wasting their time, but they’re sometimes scared to address sensitive issues. When you can lead them there gently and help them understand that you want to work with them to fix things, they generally tend to hop on board.

Most people actually appreciate being held accountable in a supportive way. And sometimes we need to check ourselves and readjust our plan based on new information that emerges in the situation.

The key here is that when we choose to speed up or slow down consciously, we avoid getting derailed.

So the next time you have a conversation and you feel like things are falling off the rails, remember the highway analogy and consciously choose what to do about it.

Let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear back from you.