Navigating Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are, well, difficult. I struggled with difficult conversations all my life. In my childhood, conflict was constant. I can’t remember a day that my ears didn’t ring because my parents were yelling at each other. When I got older, I became their target. So avoiding tough conversations became the only way to avoid getting yelled at for hours. When I became an adult, I didn’t want to be like my parents. So I chose the opposite of them. But that wasn’t healthy either. That meant adult me didn’t know how to confront people over missed expectations. Instead, I pretended like everything was fine, even if it was falling apart. 

When I was in a law firm, I had a paralegal we will call Terri. I was in denial for months about my need to fire Terri. Her work performance made it clear. We did have short conversations about how she was missing the mark. But my coaching was ineffective. She made friends with others at the firm, and I didn’t want to make her upset. I thought that I had to choose between bringing up something important or being kind. So I treaded lightly. Then she made a mistake that I couldn’t overlook because of its effect on a client. It was the last straw.

I dreaded our meeting where we had to have this terrible conversation. So I read a book called Crucial Conversations, which gave me some strategies for having a productive dialogue about difficult situations. It defined a crucial conversation as one where the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. So it applied in more situations than just letting someone go. I should have been employing these strategies all along. It told me that I fell into the pitfall of the sucker’s choice. It wasn’t an “either or” for being kind or having a crucial conversation. There was a third option. I can be honest and respectful towards Terri while delivering a candid opinion.

I had questions. How should I prepare my first sentence? How do I stay focused and get to a solution? How do I show my concerns? Since that time, I’ve learned that difficult conversations have less to do with how I use my mouth and much more to do with my preparation for the meeting. These are four things I learned from the book that dramatically improved my conversation with Terri. 

Check motives. When I’m threatened and stressed, my motives become selfish and short-term. I worry whether someone else will like me, whether I’ll look good, be right, win, or avoid conflict. For months, my motive with Terri had been to avoid conflict. My reasoning was short-term focused. I leveraged our future by preserving the present. By avoiding conflict with Terri, I hurt our clients. I frustrated her coworkers. I looked to escape under stress. Each time Terri would mess up, my chest got tight, and my heart fluttered in pain. I’d mustered up the guts to mention the problem, but I didn’t explain it in a way that changed Terri’s conduct. I didn’t know how to coach.

So I learned to reset my motives when planning for a difficult conversation. You can completely transform your motives by thoughtfully explaining a single question: What do I truly want? What do I want for the other person? For me? For other stakeholders? For the relationship? 

These questions gave me a sense of determination, focus, and calm. As I answered these questions I could connect with my real wants: to be a caring and ethical manager, to help Terri get a job where she could succeed, and to equip our team and clients with the help they need. Connecting those motives focused my mind for this conversation. 

Collect the evidence. We start a difficult conversation with clashing views. For example, Terri will come to the conversation thinking she is making progress warranting continued employment. I don’t. I feared that the discussion will descend into conflicting conclusions instead of information sharing. I will say what I think. She will say what she thinks. Rinse and repeat.

Don’t start a difficult conversation by sharing your conclusion. Instead, share the facts. Reveal your data. Describe the logic you used. Collecting the facts is required for a good conversation. If I believe, “Terri is entirely incapable of managing projects,” I owe it to her to show my case in an honest, patient, and vulnerable process. And I need to let her confront my case too. To do this, the book suggests the STATE method.

First, share the facts. When I begin the conversation, I need to share facts. Not accuse with conclusions. Then move on to tell the story where I share the assumptions that I made. Third, ask her for paths by letting her tell her story. Fourth, I must talk tentatively by reminding myself that my assumptions aren’t facts. Fifth, I need to encourage testing. I need to encourage Terri to tell me her viewpoint. I need to then work with her to find a solution.

Check emotions. Another barrier to a productive conversation is unconstructive emotion. It’s vital to not come into the conversation with emotions like anger, fear, or defensiveness. Our emotions are more about the stories we tell ourselves instead of what the other person does. 

For years, I’d tell myself villain or victim stories. A villain story helps me justify negative actions by assigning malicious motives to them. It’s when I’ve made the other person out to deserve suffering. “I can’t believe Terri hasn’t fixed this. She is entitled, lazy, and unmotivated.” 

My victim story helped me excuse myself from responsibility. I was helpless. “I did everything I could for Terri. She did this to herself!” A victim narrative makes me out to be the innocent sufferer. 

So I learned to challenge and recognize the stories that I tell myself. I must transform the other person from a villain to a human. And transform me from a victim to an actor. I had to ask myself, What am I pretending not to know about my part in this? and “Why would a rational, reasonable, and decent person do what she’s doing?” There are a few times we are just bystanders in a stream of head-on collisions. But it is rare that we are completely uninvolved. We usually are contributing to the problems we experience.

As I asked myself these questions, I understood how I had diminished my advice and enabled Terri. She made efforts to improve, but the position did not amplify her strengths. This was a good person in the wrong role. I felt respect and purpose rather than indifference and resentment.

Be curious. The best approach to a difficult conversation is a combination of curiosity and confidence. I must examine my position enough to have confidence in its merit. And I must remain humble enough to learn new facts that could improve my conclusion. Many of us oppose curiosity because we think it could weaken us. But it does the opposite. Curiosity makes you more persuasive. Others will feel less of a need to resist if they feel heard. I need to take a moment to ask clarifying questions and assume positive intent. I probably don’t have all the facts.

I prepared to use the AMPP method to have my conversation with Terri. First, I should ask to start the conversation, “I would love to hear your opinion about…” Second I should mirror to confirm her feelings, “You look unsure..” Third, paraphrase so I could understand how she feels, “So if I understand you correctly…” And fourth, prime, if I’m getting nowhere, “It seems like you think I am being unfair.”

As I walked into the room to meet with Terri, I felt confident about the conclusion that I needed to share. But I remained open to information that might convince me that I was wrong. I felt a mix of compassion and determination. I was able to share the source for my decision. I was not happy. But I was peaceful.

Terri had a tough time finding her next job. Even though executing my plan was painful, Terri supported it within minutes of our meeting. The experience taught me to hire slow and fire fast. After all, hiring is guessing. But firing is knowing. It also taught me to confront people early when they miss expectations by using these Crucial Conversation strategies. 

It’s natural to be anxious about what you’re going to say going into a difficult conversation. But it’s essential to concentrate first on your motives, assumptions, and thoughts. Difficult conversations are 60% getting your heart, head, and gut right, and 40% saying it right.

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