Advice for having difficult conversations

Everywhere Carmen and I speak people tell us that one of their top challenges is having difficult conversations.

One of the best sources for learning to have difficult conversations is the Harvard Negotiation Project and the book from faculty members Doug Stone, Sheila Heen and Bruce Patton, aptly titled "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most."

My biggest takeaway from the book is that we can't change someone's mind in a conversation. No matter how skilled you think you may be. Not going to happen.

The purpose of a conversation is to create mutual understanding of an issue so that you can both figure out the best way forward.  In other words, the  goal is to genuinely figure out what's important to the other person and express what's important to us. That's how shifts and change begin to happen.

I encourage you to read --no, devour and highlight -- this book. It will not only make you more effective at work, your personal relationships are likely improve, too.

Until then, here are my book highlights to get you thinking in some new ways.

CONTEXT

Biggest mistakes

  • Blaming: it inhibits our ability to learn what’s really causing the problem and to do anything meaningful to correct it.
  • Believing it’s their fault: when things go wrong in relationships, everyone has contributed in some important way.
  • Assuming we know the intentions and feelings of others.
  • Avoiding the problem is one of the biggest contributors to a problem.
  • Not preparing, rushing, catching someone off guard.
  • Not acknowledging feelings.

Important realities

  • Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values.
  • They are not about what is true; they are about what is important.
  • What happened is the result of what BOTH people did – or failed to do.
  • Difficult conversations don’t just involve feelings; they are at their core about
  • The two most difficult and important things are expressing feelings and listening. (And our ability to listen increases once we’ve expressed our feelings.)
  • When a conversation feels difficult it’s because something beyond the substance of the conversation is at stake for YOU.
  • People almost never change without first feeling understood.
  • Don’t share your conclusions as “the” truth; explain what’s behind your thinking.
  • When conversation goes off track reframe it to focus on mutual goals and issue at hand.

HAVING THE CONVERSATION

Prepare

  • What do you hope to accomplish? What’s the best outcome?
  • Is a conversation the best way to address the issue? (Sometimes what’s difficult has a lot more to do with what’s going on inside of you than what’s going on between you and the other person. So a conversation won't actually help. You've got to do some inner work.)
  • Plan a time to talk. Don’t do it on the fly.

How to start

  • Reduce the other person’s anxiety! Don't put them on the defense.
  • Describe the issue in a way that rings true for both sides and is free of judgment, e.g., We seem to have different assumptions and preferences for how to accomplish work we both feel is important.  I wonder whether it’s possible for us to look at the best approaches in view of what we want to achieve.

Explore: their views and yours

  • Listen and explore their perspectives, asking questions, acknowledging feelings, paraphrasing so the person knows you’ve heard them.
  • Express your views and feelings: what you see, why you see it that way, how you feel and who you are. Begin with the heart of the matter for you, e.g., “What is important to me is…”

Problem solve and figure out best way forward

  • Figure out the best way forward that satisfies both of your needs.
  • Talk about how to keep communication open as you move forward

GOOD QUESTIONS TO USE

  • What did we each do -- or not do -- to get ourselves into this mess?
  • Can you say a little more about how you see things?
  • What’s most important to you about this situation?
  • What information might you have that I don’t?
  • How do you see it differently?
  • Were you reacting to something I did?
  • How are you feeling about all of this?
  • What would it mean to you if that happened?
  • How do you see the situation differently?
  • Help me understand how you would feel and how you might think about the situation if you were in my shoes. What would you do and why?

Open a can of worms

“How do you think the elephant got in the room?” my friend Maria DeCarvalho asked as we were talking about a messy corporate situation.  “Someone lets them in when they’re small.  Most of us see them but don’t have the courage to recognize a potential problem and get rid of it before it grows into an elephant.” A  frank and generous executive coach, Maria believes that knowing how to have difficult conversations is an essential leadership skill — and one that few of us have ever been taught. It's a skill some rebels intuitively know how to do; yet for most rebels it's a valuable skill to master.

Rather than ignore signs of disagreement, negativity or skepticism, she encourages people to learn how to open  a can of worms. “You find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long.”

Here’s Maria’s recent blog post explaining how to open up a can of worms. More of her sage advice can be found on her blog.

People are always communicating. Always.

I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations or meetings in which you’ve noticed others roll their eyes, cross their arms, raise their eyebrows, press their lips together, pull out their smartphones, look down or away, exchange quick glances across a table, or just sit there and not say anything.

These messages are as clear and real as if they had been put into words.  In fact, they can be the most important part of the conversation because people are telegraphing how they actually feel.

The trouble, of course, is that it can be awkward and uncomfortable to acknowledge these signals because they seem negative and a little slippery.  They are often subtle, and sometimes they go by quickly.  Who wants to open up a can of worms?

You do.  You’re going to find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long at all.

So, grab your can opener and use these two simple steps to increase the honesty and comfort of conversations in which these behaviors are occurring:

1.  Stop thinking about signals like arm-crossing and long silence as criticism or rudeness and start calling them information. The people who are giving you these signals are letting you know how they feel.

2. Do a quick, friendly check in, just as you do when you are using your listening skills:

  • Bob, you look a little skeptical. What are you thinking?
  • Ted and Sarah?  Is there something you’re worried about that it would help us to know?
  • Garry, I’m sensing there’s something about this that you don’t like.  Where are you on this idea?
  • Anna, I’m sitting here wondering if you’ve sort of checked out of the conversation.  Is there something that’s not working for you?

Notice that each one of my suggestions ends with a  NOW WHAT? request for something back from the person.  That reduces awkwardness and helps move the conversation along.