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DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #11

Conversations We Dread

"Christmas ain't Christmas 'til somebody cries!  Usually, that someone's me"
      - Donkey, Shrek the Halls 2007 

(OK, I know I need to make my quotes more business centric, but with kids in the house I think I know more about Shrek than I do about Socrates!)

We all know that the Holidays are a stressful time, both at home and at work.  But why?  I personally think that a large part of the stress is all of the interpersonal interactions that can be unique to the holiday season.  As we all go to parties, school functions, work functions, shopping with the crowds, and family gatherings we run into difficult people and situations that we may not encounter at any other time of the year.  At the same time, everyone is having those year-end meetings and even performance reviews.  Those situations can bring up interpersonal issues that we feel the need to confront (or choose to endure rather than confront).

As an example, years ago I attended a yearly Christmas party that my manager hosted for his employees at his home.  There were two co-workers who had a very tense relationship at work because of multiple disagreements over a work process.  They had worked out a relationship at work, albeit an unhealthy one where they rarely spoke.  But for three years running at the Christmas party, over a few drinks and merriment, the issue would surface and tempers would flare.

There are deeper examples as well.  How many movies have been made about family gatherings where deep issues from the past surface and get resolved in 90 minutes?  Or stories about employees that get really bad news right before the Holidays?  Unfortunately in real life, the issues can last years, and may NEVER get resolved.

So the Holidays are here.  How do you prepare yourself for these difficult situations? 

One place that I find myself going to over and over is to one of my favorite books, Difficult Conversations.  This book discusses difficult conversations that cause anxiety or frustration, and goes through a step by step practical approach for making them less stressful and more productive.  This book is something I go back to often.  I highly recommend it.

This newsletter is the first of two that parallels some of the basics of the book, and hopefully will help you through the next few months with only a few bumps and bruises. 

We need to start by understanding what makes a conversation difficult.  There are three aspects of these tough situations - the facts, the feelings, and the Identity.  Let's look at this by using a real life example that I encountered recently:

Larry is Jean's supervisor.  Larry gets a call from a major customer saying that the company is late on a deadline that Jean is responsible for.  Larry wants to solve the problem, so he contacts Jean to get the story.  Jean admits that she is late because of other work, and says that she plans to call the customer today.  To expedite the solution to the problem.  Larry takes Jean back to his office, where they call the customer.  Larry apologizes to the customer for the delay, and tells Jean that this customer is top priority and asks her when she can meet the deadline.  Jean commits to the end of the day.

After the call both Larry and Jean are angry, and a heated discussion ensues.  Larry is angry because he had to get involved in this issue in the first place when he has other things to do.  Jean is angry because she was working on other projects that she believed were important to Larry, and now she was scolded by Larry in front of a customer.   Both walk away angry and their manager-employee relationship is damaged.

  1. The Facts
    When we recount these issues, we usually start by thinking that we are disagreeing over facts.  We each have a memory or knowledge of the facts, and we believe that if we can lay our side out in a logical way, the disagreement will go away.  We are trained early on, especially in business, to stick to the facts.  (Just the facts, ma'am)

    However, we need to realize that each participant has memory or knowledge of the facts.  Sometimes they are the same, and sometimes they differ based on perception or memory.  BUT THEY ARE USUALLY BOTH RIGHT.

    In my example above, here are some of the facts:

    The customer deadline was behind schedule.

    • The customer was unhappy.
    • Jean was working on other things.
    • Jean's priorities were not what Larry wanted.
    • They made a joint call from Larry's office to the customer, where Jean committed to a deadline.

    Neither party would disagree on the facts.  They might have different perceptions around the facts.  Larry would say that he asked Jean to come to his office, but Jean might say that Larry hauled her down to his office.  But the facts are essentially the same.

    Arguments about the facts are usually pretty easy to solve.  If you want to know who won the 1971/72 Super Bowl, Google will settle that one pretty quickly. Although Jean and Larry may start by disagreeing over the facts, heated conversations usually involve something deeper.

  2. The Feelings
    The conversations that we have trouble with involve feelings.  As much as we try to control them or avoid them, they are always there.  We are trained in business to keep them out, but it's impossible.

    Not only are feelings there, they are usually the CORE of what makes conversations difficult.  They must be understood, acknowledged, and discussed to solve these situations.

    In the example above, the core issue is the feelings involved.  They are:

    Jean felt anxious because she was dealing with multiple priorities.

    • Jean was scared to call the customer and get yelled at.
    • Larry was anxious as well, since he was also busy with lots of things.
    • Larry was angry that he had to interrupt his day to deal with this problem.
    • Jean was angry because she felt that Larry was giving conflicting priorities.
    • Jean was embarrassed that she was undermined in front of the customer.

    Both parties were tense, angry, and upset.  As the story was recounted over the next few months, both were essentially recounting the same facts, but you could hear in each party's voice that the feelings were there.

    Until the feelings are understood and expressed in a healthy way, the issue would never be resolved.

  3. Deeper Meaning

    The third aspect is the deepest of all.  The feelings brought about by the conversation, if intense enough, can make the conversation feel like it's about out self-worth.  It questions our identity, and now feels like an assault on who we are as a person.  This can bring about even deeper feelings, and even more intense reactions.

    In the example above, the deeper meaning might be:

    Jean believed that she was a dedicated worker, and felt that Larry questioned her work ethic.

    • Jean, who prides herself on being reliable, is upset that Larry is frustrated by her actions.
    • Larry prides himself on being a great manager with excellent communication and delegation skills, but this situation makes him question his abilities.

    Sometimes the deeper meaning is completely internal to us.  It's based on our own perceptions of our identity.  These difficult conversations can often feel like an attack on that identity, defenses go up (or we go on the offense), and things degenerate from there.

So, now that you know what makes up these issues, now what?  The first step is to gain understanding of the issue before the conversation starts.  If you are in touch with the three aspects from your own perspective and from the other person's perspective, you can understand more clearly what is being said, and handle the conversation in a healthy manner. 

Gaining Understanding

  1. Write down the facts as you know them.  Write down the facts as the other person knows them.  Avoid why, and just write who, what, where, and when.  Determine whether any discrepancies are really important.  Most likely, the differences in fact are minor and may not be even worth your time to resolve. 

  2. Write down the way this conversation makes you feel.  Are you angry, frustrated, tense, anxious, sad, glad, afraid, etc.?  Why?  See if you can put yourself in the other person's shoes and do the same thing?  (Be careful here - you may be way off.  This is just a starting point to open your mind that feelings are probably involved on both sides)

  3. What does this situation say about me?  Am I reacting appropriately, or reading more into this than what was said?  What might the other person in the conversation be thinking about how this impacts their self-worth?

Once you feel comfortable that you have a grasp of the issue, it's time for a decision.  Is this worth pursuing?  You may determine that the facts are given, and that the feelings are all on your side.  There may be work that you have to do that has nothing to do with the other person.  Having the conversation may not help. 

If the issue is worth pursuing, there are a number of techniques that can help.  I will share some of those in December.



Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate