“Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings is like staging an opera without music.”
I spent time todaywith a friend and client discussing how to coach a young employee through some performance issues and it reminded me that it’s challenging to have difficult conversations. Even those of us with decades in the workplace can find ourselves in emotional quicksand.
How do you sort through facts – and feelings?
How can you track your own perspective – and understand the other person’s point of view?
Most important: How do you increase the odds that a tough conversation will yield positive results?
This newsletter draws heavily on three books that I keep close at hand:
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Stone, Patton, and Heen
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Fisher and Ury
How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, by Kegan and Lahey.
Start out with this goal: Understand not only what is said, but also what is thought and felt.
A case study: a colleague doesn’t deliver
Let’s say Alyse has failed to meet a deadline again. She promised last week that she would get you her thoughts about the website redesign before leaving the office for five days of customer meetings. It’s now two days after the deadline and still nothing from Alyse.
What to do? Many of us do nothing. The stress associated with bringing up a situation like this encourages us to bottle up our reactions and move on.
The trouble is, we don’t move on. Instead, we make a withdrawal in our “relationship account” with Alyse. We wonder about her commitment and her priorities and slowly those thoughts erode trust. Soon Alyse’s account is overdrawn and she doesn’t even know it. What Alyse observes is that we have become frostier in conversations and much less willing to work with her.
This is a perfect setup for having a difficult conversation. Before beginning that conversation, it is important to recognize you will be having three conversations at the same time and to plan your conversation strategies accordingly:
1. The conversation about what happened – that is, the facts
2. The conversation about feelings
3. The conversation about what this information says about each person’s identity.
The “what happened” conversation
This is the conversation almost everyone is aware of – we are talking about “the facts.”
The truth is most difficult conversations are almost never about the facts: they are heavily colored by our perceptions about what those facts mean to us.
Take Alyse again. She travels frequently. If you are Alyse, it may mean you are a good sales person who invests her time in maintaining strong customer relationships. To others, it may mean Alyse doesn’t take her home-base responsibilities seriously enough.
The challenge: Avoid a tug-of-war conversation about whose interpretation of the facts is “right.” Instead, explore attitudes and beliefs and look for common ground.
The classic “Ladder of Inference” by Harvard Business School professor emeritus Chris Argyris demonstrates how quickly we proceed from observing a fact to making assumptions about reaching our own subjective interpretation. A recent TED Ed animation cleverly walks you through that seven-step ladder.
So, understanding this process, how can we have successful conversations about what happened?
- Develop a practice of sorting out the facts – what happened — from your interpretations of facts. “Alyse didn’t turn in her ideas for the new website. This must not be a priority for her.” Pause. “Better check that out.” If Alyse is usually conscientious, you might think of alternative explanations: “We’re facing a difficult situation with one client – and she got the message from someone else to deal with that first.” Or even, “Come to think of it, she usually weighs in when she disagrees. This probably means she is OK with the direction.”In short, don’t rush to judgment.
- Sort thoughts and observations – that is, separate from facts – by using “left-hand column” technique. In the right-hand column, note what was said; in the left one note your thoughts.
- Learn to “map” each person’s contribution to a given situation. Presume that we all contribute to where we are. Chart those contributions — and you can discover new insights, common ground and opportunities for understanding.
The Feelings Conversation
While the “what happened” conversation is the most obvious, many of us are also aware of the “feelings” conversation.
The authors of Difficult Conversations argue that most difficult conversations have feelings at their core:
Our goal: Become articulate in the language of feelings.
- Understand your own values when it comes to expressing feelings. Was your family emotionally expressive? How common is give-and-take about feelings in your organization?
- Identify and include your feelings in conversations. Start to think about emotion in a vocabulary that is rich and specific. Go beyond “mad,” “afraid,” and “hurt” to “furious,” “panicky” and “humiliated.”
- Become open to other people’s feelings. You don’t need to justify, judge or talk others out of their feelings. Just learn to hear feelings expressed and let others know you acknowledge them.
The Identity Conversation
The third and most powerful component of any conversation is the one that asks the question “What does this conversation say about me as a person?”
To be successful at difficult conversations, we must become fully aware of the self-portraits we all carry around that shape our self-esteem.
Some parts of our identity matter most – challenges to them are likelier to send us into a tailspin. Discipline and reliability may matter most deeply to you, for example. Creativity may be tops for a colleague. Skills at relationships could be central to someone else’s self-esteem.
The Difficult Conversations authors recommend that we begin by accepting three things:
First, we all make mistakes.
Second, our intentions are complex.
Third, we all contributed to any situation.
If you focus on these issues, you improve the odds of having a productive difficult conversation.
The bottom line:
This framework – the three conversation levels — is a way to understand what is happening in a difficult conversation.
With Alyse, it might help you to start the conversation by asking her to describe the website deadline as she saw it: What were the facts, from her perspective? You can share the facts from your perspective.
And it makes sense to ask Alyse to share how she felt about the deadline – and how she imagined others would feel about her lack of communication.
Listen. You might be surprised by what you hear. Make sure she knows you listened.
Then you can tell her that you felt let down and embarrassed in front of your boss for missing a deadline.
Then….you move forward:
“So what can we do together get this project back on track?”
For more resources:
- “How to overcome communication fears” by JD Schramm of Stanford University’s School of Business, suggests setting the stage for a difficult conversation by scheduling time to talk over a “delicate” or “touchy” matter. With that signal, he says, “You have framed the conversation that needs to happen.”
- “Make Communication About Them, Not You” by consultant Peter Bregman argues that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your needs and emotions during a tough talk. Instead: “When you have a strong reaction to something, take a deep breath and ask yourself a single question: what’s going on for the other person?”
- “Difficult Conversations: Nine Common Mistakes,” a slideshow based on a book by communications consultant Holly Weeks, describes a litany of errors, including: “We fell into a combat mentality” and “We lost sight of the goal.”
Let us know – which conversation worked for you? What communications practices would you like to better understand?
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