Difficult Conversations @ Work

September 04, 2013


Difficult Conversations

Admit it, on at least one occasion during the past three months, something or someone got under your skin. You told yourself it was past time to speak up. But every time you started to initiate a difficult conversation, a little voice in the back of your mind piped up and said, “Better not.”

Well folks, fall’s here! It’s time to tackle the difficult and inconvenient things that were too burdensome to ruin a perfect summer day.

I’ve participated in difficult conversations from a variety of perspectives:  as an employee and as a boss; as a client and as a client services provider; as a sibling, a child, a spouse and a significant other. I know that nice, normal everyday conversations can suddenly become “difficult” when strong emotions become involved. When an employee doesn’t feel valued, a boss doesn’t feel respected, or a significant other doesn’t feel loved and appreciated, conversations become challenging for everyone.

The next time someone says or does something that evokes a strong emotional response, pause.

To the extent possible, get away from every electronic device that surrounds you. Whatever you do, do NOT send an email or text to the person who has caused the emotional reaction. Trust me on this.

Then, take a few moments to prepare yourself for a difficult conversation.

Start with the 3 W’s and 1 H

Before you initiate a difficult conversation, develop your best understanding of the facts. Begin by asking yourself the following questions

1. Who? Who is involved in the situation? Is it one person? Are many people involved? Do I then need to plan on several conversations? If it is just one person, what do I know about that person? Do I have an understanding of their wants and needs?  What are their fears and expectations? What can I reasonably expect from them?

2. What actually happened? What’s my perspective of the event? What are other potential perspectives? What assumptions have I made about the other person and his or her actions? Have I tested those assumptions? What are my hot button issues, and has this event pushed one of them?

3. Why did it happen? What factors contributed to this particular situation?

4. How did I contribute to the event?

Once you’ve reflected on these questions, then, and only then, should you open your mouth and initiate a difficult conversation.

Explore for Understanding

Part of the problem with “difficult conversations” is the very label we give them. Our use of the word “difficult” practically pre-determines the conversation will become just that, a self-fulfilling prophecy so to speak.

Instead of inviting the other person involved into your space (office, cubicle, home), find a neutral area and indicate you want to explore some thoughts. Feel free to describe the event or comment that gave rise to your emotional reaction. Describe it as best you can, using non-accusatory language. Instead of saying, “You did XYZ,” state, “This is how I felt when XYZ occurred.”

Then, be prepared to put aside all of the conclusions you’ve reached and explore for understanding. Specific techniques include:

Ask, don’t tell – You can’t know everything, and deep down inside, you know you don’t. Before you start asserting facts, obtain the other person’s perspective. Be cognizant of what you don’t know about the situation that would complete your understanding.

Listen – Confirm the other person’s perspective. Ask lots of questions. Recognize you can see and experience the same “facts,” yet walk away with very different conclusions. Remember, our minds are not accurate video recorders of events. Rather, our minds combine fragments of information to understand events, and each person may combine different fragments.

Explain – After you’ve listened, and only after, share your perspective. Describe your perceptions. Explain the impact the event or statement made upon you and your emotions.

Solution – Seek to develop a joint solution. To the extent possible, develop a solution that satisfies everyone’s fundamental needs.

By following the exploration process, will you enjoy a life without difficult conversations? Probably not. Inevitably, you will encounter a situation in which the development of a joint solution is impossible. Your core values are not in sync with another’s, and you must agree to disagree.

However, following the exploration process will make many conversations at work far less difficult.

What Do You Need to Know?

Every new and established professional eventually encounters the need to engage in difficult conversations. It's part of the getting along process. When the situation arises, take the opportunity to seek a shared understanding of the facts and develop a joint solution. And please, the more difficult the conversation, the more important it is to converse face-to-face.



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