Are You Paying Attention to the Yellow Lights?

I was riding shotgun (i.e. sitting in the passenger seat) and Aaron, my 22-year-old son, was driving. He had picked me up at the airport and, within minutes, we were weaving in and out of the afternoon traffic.

Up ahead of us the traffic light turned from green to yellow. Aaron gunned the engine. And I let out a yelp of anxiety.

To me a yellow light means – slow down and get ready to stop.

To Aaron, a yellow light means – speed up and make it through the intersection before he has to stop. We both recognize yellow lights as a warning. But, this warning triggers very different behaviors for each of us. Yellow lights aren’t only encountered while driving around town. “Yellow lights” are part of every conversation you have at work and at home.

Every meeting, every dialogue, every conversation that you have is filled with yellow lights – conversational yellow lights.

These conversational yellow lights are warnings, signals that let you know that the person you’re talking to is (one or more of the following):

  • Not following your reasoning
  • Not accepting your assumptions
  • Not understanding your point of view
  • Not connecting with your message

So, how do you know you’re approaching a conversational yellow light?

You know will know that you’re approaching a conversational yellow light whenever the person you’re talking to:

  • Questions your thinking, assumptions, or motives
  • Expresses doubt or concern about what you’re offering
  • Asks a challenging question
  • Voices an idea that you don’t agree with
  • Expresses non-verbal doubt, disagreement, or displeasure

In short, they’re out of synch with what you’re saying. And you’re not influencing them in the direction you’re intending. They’re flashing a conversational yellow light. And, how you interpret their yellow light – will determine how you respond.

Many people interpret a conversational yellow light as a signal to speed up.

They see the yellow light as a threat to their agenda. And, they don’t want to stop moving their agenda forward. They don’t want to lose momentum. They believe that slowing down will cause them to lose ground. So, when a conversational yellow light flashes they:

  • Talk more (more words, louder volume, faster tempo)
  • Explain in greater detail
  • Argue harder
  • Provide more evidence
  • Quote additional studies
  • Cite other experts
  • Show more charts and graphs

Why? Because they’re afraid of the yellow light. They recognize that the yellow light means they’re out of synch with the other person. But, they think they need to try harder, talk more, and blow past the yellow light. But, whenever you blow past a conversational yellow light, you miss the opportunity to make a stronger connection with the other person, understand them better, and increase your influence.

When you hit a conversational yellow light – slow down.

Every conversational yellow light is a gift, whether it’s a doubt, concern, objection, or question that the other person is expressing, it’s a gift. By flashing a conversational yellow light, the other person’s way of letting you know exactly where they’re stuck, uncertain, and how you’ve lost them.

Their questions and disagreements are letting you know precisely what matters most to them.

Their non-verbal signals of confusion, discomfort, disagreement, or disinterest, are highlighting exactly what you need to understand more completely – if you want to influence them. So, what should you do when you see a conversational yellow light?

1) Get curious

Stop convincing. Stop selling. Stop explaining. When people flash their yellow lights, they’re telling you to slow down and shift from being convincing to being curious.When you shift into being curious, you will naturally let go of defending your position or pushing your agenda. And you’ll naturally slow down in order to learn more about their experience, their interpretations, their reality.

Curiosity loosens your sense of certainty. You don’t lose your point of view. You’re just not imprisoned by it. You’re curious, eager to learn, and ready to pay attention in a way that honors the other person.

2) Ask questions.

Ask real questions – one’s that you don’t know the answer to. Show your interest, respect, and care for the other person by asking questions. And take your time. Don’t just ask questions to help you make your case. Ask questions to really discover what true for the other person. Use questions as stepping stones into their world.

When you ask questions with a spirit of curiosity and respect, you build relationship.

3) Honor their doubts and concerns

Treat every doubt and concern as a precious. When people share their doubts and concerns with you – it’s an honor. They’re opening themselves up.If you meet their openness with argumentation or manipulation – they’re going to shut down. Recognize the openness that their doubts represent. Again, explore the doubt. Not to refute it – but to understand it as deeply as you can.

4) Breathe

If you feel an inner pressure to get the conversation back onto your tempo, your direction, your agenda – take a deep breath. Shift your breathing rhythm into a slow and relaxed tempo. Your agenda will be there when the time is right.

When is it the right time to start talking?

And the time is right when the other person offers you a green light. What does a green light look like?

  • Their body relaxes. Where before they were tense and defended, not they’re open and relaxed.
  • They’re asking questions. Instead of defending or explaining, they shift into curiousity and start to ask for your ideas, opinions, proposals.
  • They non-verbally say, “Talk to me.” Through facial expressions, head nods, and hand gestures they encourage you to speak. Non-verbally they’re telling you, “I’m ready to listen.”

Next, time you’re driving your agenda forward – pay attention to those yellow lights.

And when you see one, put your foot on the brake (not in your mouth) and slow the conversation down.  As you slow down and listen, you increase your influence, deepen your connection with the other person, and make it easier to move the conversation forward with greater alignment.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”

— Eddie Cantor

Questions for Reflection & Action

How do you typically respond when someone you’re trying to influence:

  • Disagrees your opinion
  • Expresses doubt or concern
  • Asks a challenging question
  • Voices an idea that you don’t agree with

What is an upcoming conversation where you expect to hit a yellow light?

  • How do you want to respond?




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