Helena Åhman, who has studied conversational intelligence with hostage negotiators and at Harvard University, reveals the superpower of a skilled conversationalist: “If the other person feels like they are heard, miracles can happen.”
You might think that a professor of practice in conversational intelligence and mind leadership is a person who chooses their words very carefully. Helena Åhman, the only person in Finland with this title, says that the description does not fit her – at least not all the time.
“When I’m having conversations with people in everyday situations, I do not always consciously consider what to say next. It is a great ability to be able to recognise the demanding situations where you should be aware of how you talk and act”.
She is particularly interested in these kinds of critical discussions and pressured situations. According to Åhman, conversational intelligence is highlighted in conflicts, as they often involve risks but also great opportunities. In difficult discussions, individuals can sometimes engage in actions that are not purposeful. It is possible to turn the situations around with good conversational skills.
“Change situations can often involve this kind of behaviour as people’s sense of control is threatened. In professional life, for example, feedback discussions or pitching new ideas can be difficult for many as they might not have the courage to express their own views,” says Åhman.
Hostage negotiation methods can also work in everyday conflicts
Åhman, who was appointed as a professor of practice at Turku School of Economics at the beginning of 2023, has studied conversational intelligence with former FBI and Scotland Yard hostage negotiators. According to Åhman, some of the hostage negotiation tactics can be applied in everyday situations, but not all.
“A hostage negotiator cannot make compromises, such as saving the lives of some of the hostages and sacrificing the rest. However, in private and professional life, making compromises is important.”
”We often make the mistake that we ignore the other person’s point of view and try to convert them into thinking like we do.”
– Helena Åhman
The most challenging discussions often share similar characteristics: emotions are involved and the values or beliefs of the parties do not match. If this is the situation, Åhman says that the disagreement cannot be solved with straightforward problem solution methods, but the discussion has to be first opened and the participants have to be careful when to seek a solution.
“We often make the mistake that we ignore the other person’s point of view and try to convert them into thinking like we do. This does not work – it is our responsibility to ensure that the other person is heard. It is an incredible power: if the other person feels like they are heard, miracles can happen and you can together find a perspective that neither of you have considered.”
Aiming to train better future leaders
If someone would have told Åhman when she was 20 that she will be living one of the best periods in her life when she is approaching 60, she would not have believed it. However, this is the case.
“I’m excited to learn new things and I see a great deal of opportunities ahead of me,” Åhman describes her current situation in life.
She has travelled a long and winding road to reach the point where she is at. Åhman graduated as a primary school teacher, but has since studied psychology and marketing, among other things. She wrote her dissertation on own mind-leadership and individual success in changing organisations. Today, Åhman is known as a non-fiction writer, speaker, and a coach for management groups and executive boards. In the last few years, she has studied conversational intelligence at Harvard, mediation in London, and lectured on the topics at the New York University.
“As a professor of practice, I have told my students that it doesn’t matter if life doesn’t turn out how you imagine it will when you are young. You can shape your life into what you want it to be, while considering others, of course.”
Åhman held a course on conversational intelligence and self-leadership of the mind for the University of Turku students in spring 2023, and it sparked a great deal of interest in the students and generated a lot of positive feedback. The course combined science, arts, and everyday situations, and Åhman invited interesting guests lecturers to the course, such as the Chief Commercial Officer of the Virgin Atlantic, the former operative leader of the Finnish Police Rapid Response Unit, a musician, and a New York University professor.
“It is important for students to learn conversational intelligence and mind leadership as they affect our lives comprehensively both at work and at leisure. It forms a good basis for other learning and frees energy from contemplating unnecessary matters. My goal with the students is that they will avoid the same mistakes in professional life that the current leaders have made,” Åhman explains.
Helena Åhman’s advice for challenging discussions:
- Be aware of your mental and physical state when going into to the discussion and seek ways to calm your body and mind.
- Try to make the other person to feel safe as well.
- Do not express your opinions straight off, but first try to create a connection. Ask questions so that you can understand the other person’s point of view.
- Check your observations, have you understood the matters correctly.
- Remember that not everything has to be solved in one discussion.
- Be aware of your own limits and disclose them to the other person if they cross them.
- Remember that if the other person says no, it is just the beginning of the negotiation, not the end.
Text: Jenni Valta
Photos: Ville Juurikkala
Translation: Mari Ratia