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DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #13

The Recipe for a Tough Conversation

This newsletter is the third in a series on the topic of tough conversations.  In this month's edition, we will discuss the mechanics of actually how to have the conversation.  If you can learn this process and remember it in the heat of the moment, you have a good chance of a having a productive exchange and you minimize your risk of getting involved in an emotional blow up.

This series of newsletters is based on the book Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton, and Heen.  This book has helped me greatly, and I would highly recommend it as an addition to your personal library.

Let's review what we covered in the first two newsletters in the series.  In the first newsletter we talked about how conversations deal with both facts and emotions.  Tough conversations may appear to be about the facts, but what makes a discussion tough are the strong emotions that arise.  Emotions can be immediate (sadness, anger, etc.), or can "touch a nerve" about personal identity of an individual, making them feel inadequate in some way.

In the second newsletter, we talked about whether or not a conversation was really the answer.   Sometimes the issue is ours, and a conversation really doesn't help.  Other times, the issues can be resolved in other less confrontational ways.

This newsletter assumes that you have decided to go forward with a conversation.  Or, it's possible that you did not have a choice.  Sometimes you are required to have conversations whether you like it or not, such as giving performance feedback or sharing bad news.  Other times, another party may force you into a conversation, and it's on (like Donkey Kong) before you even know it.  The trick here is to recognize that you are in a tough discussion, and follow the formula below.  We'll use this example to illustrate the steps:

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 has been getting pressure from above about keeping customers happy, and wants to solve the problem.  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, but leaves feeling like the situation was not handled well.  She's angry and humiliated, and has decided that she needs to have a discussion with Larry.

Here's the formula:

  1. Start from a mediator point of view.

    The goal of this step is to enter the conversation in a non-threatening, productive manner.  Try to step back and state the issue at hand in the same words that a neutral mediator would take.  Picture someone who has no idea about your situation trying to describe what's going on.  This statement should describe only what you agree on.  Do not yet try to state your opinion or assume the other person's opinion, as either can create defensiveness.  You should only attempt to describe why you want to have this conversation.  When that is complete, invite the other person to participate in the discussion.  By accepting, the other person agrees willingly to be your partner in solving this issue.

    Example: Hi Larry.  I wanted to speak with you about what happened the other day.  I think we both agree that the customer situation did not go well, and it's something we don't want to repeat.  We seem to have a difference about how the customer was handled or about my priorities.  Is that something that we can talk about?

    It's tempting to start the conversation with your case.  These conversations proceed like a courtroom drama.  You present your case, your opponent prepares a defense and presents theirs, and you argue.  Unfortunately, unlike a courtroom, there is no one there to decide the winner and you mostly just walk away angry and entrenched in your opinion.

  2. Explore their story.

    The next step is to put yourself in listening mode and try to understand exactly where the other person is coming from, both from a factual and emotional perspective.  This is where listening skills come in.  Listening skills are extremely critical, and I will devote a future newsletter or two to this area.  For the purposes of this topic I will ask you to focus on 3 things:

    1. Try to learn something. Listen intently, trying to uncover something that you don't know.  Don't trust your assumptions, and try to formulate an opinion as if you were a person hearing this for the first time.

    2. Focus on the feelings.  Listen for facts, but try to identify what the other person was feeling.  Were they experiencing some emotion that you haven't thought of?   Acknowledge the feelings, even if you don't agree with them.

    3. Manage your internal voice.  It's natural that you will want to comment on what's being said, but it's not conducive to listening.  If you absolutely can't stand it, limit your comments to your own feelings ("hearing that makes me feel really awkward"), and not to judgment.   Try to control your impulse to prepare what you are going to say next.  If you are thinking about your story, you aren't listening.

    Example:  Larry, I really want to understand where you were coming from during our customer interchange the other day.  Can you tell me what was going on for you?

    I hear a lot of times from clients in these discussions that "the other person won't listen".  If you break this down, you know that the other person won't listen because they are talking.  The main reason that people keep talking is because they believe that you haven't heard them.  So, it may really mean that YOU aren't listening.  If you just take the time to really listen and make people feel truly heard, people will usually then extend the same courtesy to you.

  3. Present your story.

    Now you finally get a chance to tell your side!  You are certainly entitled to tell your story, and stand up for what you believe in.  Now that both sides are engaged in the process, and you have done your job in trying to understand another point of view, it's time to express your own conclusions.  The key here is to describe what happened, and how it made you feel.  Here are three tips:

    1. Proceed as if the other person is unaware of your views and feelings and is willing to change.  If you assume that the other person had poor motives, your language can be accusatory and detrimental to true understanding.  Just as you entered the conversation with the intention to learn, give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the other person shares the same goal.

    2. Present things as your view and not the absolute truth.  There is a big difference between saying "calling the customer was absolutely wrong", and "I believe that calling the customer was not the best long-term solution".  Explain why you felt the way you did so that the other party really understands.

    3. Leave room to negotiate.  Statements like "the only way this can be resolved is if you apologize and promise never to do this again" can end the conversation quickly.  Words like only, never, or always don't really express a view, and undermine many potential solutions.

    Example:  Larry, when you stepped in and called the customer with me on the phone, it really made me feel humiliated.  I think that I have proven to you that I am a hard worker and really valuable for your team.   I thought that I was on the same page with you on priorities, and it felt like you were not happy with my work ethic. Even though the customer problem was solved, it made me feel less valuable, and it will be hard to manage that customer relationship in the future.  I don't believe that calling the customer was the best answer, and I'd like to work on solutions so this doesn't happen again in the future.

    The goal with this step is not only to share the facts, but to share the emotions behind the facts, and perhaps enlighten the other person on where those emotions come from.

  4. Problem solve.

    Once the views are on the table, it's time to problem solve.  This is where options are invented and expressed.  Standard brainstorming rules are in order here, even though it's usually only 2 people talking.  It's important to not judge ideas, or the flow of ideas may be shut down.

    Once ideas have been expressed, test them.  Determine what is solved, and what is still missing.  See if you can combine things to solve more of the problem.

    If at the end things are still not completely solved, it's time to negotiate.  Tell the other person what would persuade you to accept the plan.  Ask their advice on what would help them accept the idea.  You may find that even if you don't get 100% of what you wanted, 80% resolution may be a good alternative.

    Example:  OK, Larry you agree to try to handle things differently in the future with the customer.  You will let me call the customer first, and then you will follow up with the customer a day or two later.  In exchange, I agree to update you weekly on my priorities, and I agree to give you a heads-up about when a customer might be calling you directly so that you are better informed.

So all conversations will fit nicely into this 4 step process, right?  Wrong.  Real conversations rarely follow this plan.  Conversations are fluid, and go from exploring their story, to your story, then back to yours, then a little problem solving.  The most important thing is to recognize where you are, and change your behavior accordingly.  It's OK to go back and forth from mediator, listener, speaker, and problem solver as the conversation moves.  If you can keep up with where the conversation is going and adjust your style accordingly, you will have better success in making these difficult conversations successful.

This will fit a lot of tough conversations, but not all.  There are still special conversations that will require some changes.  For example, if you are delivering bad news, it would be rather insulting to deliver it from the perspective of a mediator!  However, many conversations will follow this plan, and you will be into problem solving before you know it.

Good luck!

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate