Diffusing Difficult Conversations

What constitutes a difficult conversation? Well in practice it is anything we find difficult to talk to someone else about. It may be difficult because the topic impacts on our own sense of security, self-esteem, well-being, or identity; or on that of the person we are going to talk to.

It is easy to recognise when we are entering the territory of ‘difficult’, we start to experience physical and emotional discomfort such as dread, anxiety, stomach churning sensations, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, sweaty palms and so on.  This is often accompanied by a horror movie playing out in our head of the various scenarios we are likely to face. It is no wonder that by the time we embark on the conversation we are tense, pumped and primed for disaster. So what can we do?

Stone et.al. suggest there are three specific difficult conversations. The first is about what did or did not happen, (or what should happen). The second is around emotions and hurt feelings, resulting in anger, upset, fear and so on. The third is around identity, that is to say that what is being discussed affects the self-esteem or feelings of worth of one or both parties to the conversation. In a business context it is easy to see how all three conversation types are interrelated. For example, John appears to criticise Mary’s idea in a management meeting, Mary feels John undermined her in front of her peers, and sees this as John implying she is incompetent. As a result Mary feels upset and angry at John resulting in her finding fault with every word John utters. John now is ‘at war’ with Mary and problems ensue.

So how can we approach difficult conversations effectively?

‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’

(Stephen R. Covey)

 Be clear on what really has happened. When we observe, or are at the receiving end of others behaviour, we may not see the whole picture. Our brains are notoriously good at fooling us, telling us we saw (or did not see) something. Our brains are skilled in distorting information in the process of trying to make sense of it. So the first step in having a difficult conversation is to hear the other persons story and listen, really listen to what they are saying. Explore their and your own interpretation objectively and crucially do not assume your interpretation is 100% correct.

We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour’

(Stephen M.R. Covey)

 Clarify why it has happened. The reality is that we see only the behaviour of others and not the intent behind that behaviour. Also we are less kind and forgiving of others behaviour than our own. Picture this, John is late for the meeting with Mary, Mary sees this as disrespectful and gets angry. Actually John was late because he stopped to help out Tony who was struggling to gather all the information Mary needed for the the meeting. To have effective conversations with others we need to separate out the behaviour and intent, in particular we should avoid projecting our own interpretation of their intent onto their behaviour. If in doubt – ask what the intent was.

‘What goes around, comes around’

Have a clear idea of the outcome you desire. Before embarking on the difficult conversation consider what outcome you are seeking and also how important the relationship is to you. The business world is a small world and if you work in a particular specialism it gets even smaller. People you hack off today will as sure as night follows day, reappear at some stage in your career. Rather than adopting an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong approach’, consider how far you can get towards an understanding and agreement you can both live with. How do you preserve the respect and esteem of both parties. What will need to happen to move you towards this goal?

‘When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself’

Louis Nizer

Acknowledge and then manage your own emotion. Other people’s actions can cause us to feel negative emotion but we have a choice as to what we do with that feeling. The formula E+R=O comes to mind. Where E is the event, O is the outcome and R can either be reaction or response. Reaction is the emotional behaviour which may be a quick retort or a ‘sod you’ email. Response means deploying a thought through action that has acknowledged but then parked the emotion; choosing instead to identify what would be a helpful and progressive next step. Failing to manage our own reaction can lead to an attack defend situation. Better to accept that we have a choice, we can choose what we let overwhelm us emotionally. If we do choose to explain the emotional impact on us to the other person, then we should own our statements by using the word ‘I’. Rather than saying ‘you upset me’, we could say ‘when you were late for the meeting, I felt upset’. Then explain why.

What would Gandhi do?

Consider different perspectives. When we are stuck for a way forward, it is helpful to consider how someone we respect and whose opinion we value might behave. How would they approach the situation? The technique of considering not just our own or the other persons perspective, but also how a third party might see the situation, can shed light on how to approach the conversation. Where might misunderstandings have arisen from both sides, what information might both sides be missing, who else might be affected and so on.

 ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’

Albert Einstein

Work it out collaboratively. Sustainable solutions are agreed and adopted rather than imposed on others. Use the conversation to explore solutions that work for both sides. Think about what needs to be done differently to avoid the issues resurfacing. Rather than picking over the bones of past mistakes identify how both sides can work towards a better future. What will you both commit to doing differently to avoid future issues. From a management perspective these are often simple things like, having more open conversations, exploring motives behind behaviour at the time – whilst owning your own reaction. Questions such as ‘I’m wondering why you took that action on this occasion?’, ‘Help me understand why you felt that way’ and so on, can help diffuse the situation.

‘Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.’

Robert Tew

You don’t have to see out the play! We sometimes feel that having started a conversation we have to continue with it to the dire end. But if a conversation is not working for both parties it can often be helpful to cut it short and revisit it another day. If emotions are high then putting time and space between both sides can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to suggest a break in the conversation whilst you both have a think and return afresh later. As long that is as you do both return to the conversation. Consider what you both need to do differently next time to prevent the discussion falling apart again. Finish with an affirming statement about your commitment to a good outcome for both of you.

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Covey, S. R. (1999), The 77 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, London

Stone, D., Patton, B. and Heen, S. (2000) Difficult Conversations, Penguin Books, London