Success in Difficult Conversations

February 8, 2018

In our work lives as in our personal lives we encounter situations that demand initiating a difficult conversation. These conversations are not easy, but shouldn’t be avoided because that can often make things worse.

As much as the conflict avoider in us may want to run in the other direction, those who are able to courageously confront the situation are likely to push through the discomfort and grow from it. In addition, the relationship that is demanding the difficult conversation will most likely move forward.

A difficult conversation results when two or more people have: 1) a difference of opinion, perspective, needs or wants; 2) feelings or emotions are strong; 3) consequences or the stakes are high for at least one person. When you’re in a difficult conversation, you may find:

  • There is little safety between participants
  • Emotions are defining the conversation
  • Very little listening is taking place
  • Participants are aiming for a win/lose scenario
  • Participants may be playing a role: victim, aggressor, martyr, etc.

Obviously, this can result in a highly stressful environment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Use the following steps to be at your best when initiating a difficult conversation:

Stay Calm
Breathe. Try to be present of what you are feeling and what it is you want. If possible, try to determine what the other person may be feeling and wanting. And when you begin the conversation, be certain to communicate your intent up front in order to provide safety for the other person.

Shift Your Perspective
Rather than focus on how difficult the conversation is going to be, try to think of it as a constructive conversation. By initiating this constructive conversation, you are demonstrating the value the relationship has for you. Keep in mind that this is an investment of your time and emotional energy that will benefit you as well as the relationship.

Make a Plan
Have a clear idea of the points you want to make, but don’t write out a script. You should be able to summarize both your perspective as well as the other’s. If you are uncertain of the former, you need to figure it out before initiating the conversation. If you are uncertain of the latter, you should provide ample opportunity at the beginning of the conversation to better understand this. Be careful of assumptions you are making as these can so often derail any conversation, and are especially dangerous when emotions are high.

Prepare to Actively Listen
This means listening to the other person in a way that ensures he or she feels heard. Being an active listener means you make a conscious effort to truly hear what the other person is saying—in their words as well as their body language. Practice holding off thinking about how to respond or interrupting until you have thoroughly heard what they are saying.

Be Compassionate and Demonstrate Empathy
Consider how it may feel to be on the other end of this conversation. Be respectful while they take in what may be very difficult for them to hear. Convey in your words, tone and body language that you truly care for how the other person feels about what it is you are saying. Try to get comfortable with the awkward silence that may result.

Seek a Win-Win Conclusion When Possible
In most cases a successful difficult conversation doesn’t result in a winner and a loser. Therefore, seek out an amicable resolution to the conflict in a way that is satisfying to both parties. This is not always possible, of course, but even when you have to convey bad news such as a job dismissal, see if there is a way to soften the news. Perhaps it is simply providing information about out-placement services, severance package, a solid reference, etc.

Reflect & Learn
When the conversation is over, take a moment to reflect on what went well and what not so well. What could you have said better or differently? There are certainly things outside of your control in a heated conversation and you will need to maintain your boundaries. Don’t take on guilt for the other person’s negative reaction to your news. This requires courage and you will likely be fortified the next time you need to have a difficult conversation.

In order to have a constructive difficult conversation, the steps above should help you navigate them more successfully. In most cases, your efforts are likely to improve the relationship and build your skill at navigating future difficult conversations.

“Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues,” according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.

Start by rethinking your difficult conversation as more of a constructive conversation. Remember that whether it is with your family members, friends or co-workers you are directly confronting an issue that has stifled the relationship. Though it is not easy to do, the result of your efforts—in most cases—will move the relationship forward and build-up a powerful skill in you as a leader.

United We Stand . . . And Kneel

September 29, 2017

There is a lot dividing us these days. Whether it’s on the national political stage or in our own local workplace, we should be wary of the wedge that seeks to separate us.

On the national level are huge issues such as health care and race relations that require thoughtful and deliberate attention with respectful communication and solution-seeking collaboration. One side will not convince the other that they are wrong. But if people on both sides—our representatives in government as well as concerned citizens—are open-minded and listen respectfully to each other, there is room for us to unite around where we agree. And that is the beginning of the compromise necessary to find sustainable solutions.

President Trump says his opposition to NFL players taking a knee has “nothing to do with race” but has to do with “respect for our country and respect for our flag.” San Francisco 49ers Eric Reid writes that the protests he and Colin Kaepernick began by taking a knee have nothing to do with the flag and that it was meant to be a respectful gesture to protest police brutality against people of color. Can we be respectful of both perspectives?

Is it possible to raise awareness with regard to racial injustice without disrespecting the flag? Is it possible to take a knee during the national anthem without having it perceived as disrespecting the flag? This requires thoughtful discussion rather than dismissiveness.

We live at a time when politicians, pundits and Russian hackers via social media bots are deliberately trying to drive a wedge between Americans to keep us from having meaningful and productive discussions. Although this has been effective in the short-term at dividing us, this is counter-productive and needs to cease in order for us to move forward.

In the workplace, far too many organizations have encouraged or ineffectively discouraged the silo mentality that so often pits one person or workgroup against another. The lack of an “organization-wide team” mentality means the competitive spirit that is so important in beating external competitors is spent internally on pitting employees against each other.

We see this in hiring and promoting practices where the policy looks equitable on the surface, yet employees know many examples of people who are hired or promoted into senior positions without necessarily playing by the rules or demonstrating integrity. We also see it when one leader is rewarded for getting results despite the negative impact he or she has had on other leaders and their teams.

To suggest we need to always find consensus and conduct business in a way that doesn’t end in disagreements and disappointments is unrealistic. Business has winners and losers. What’s important is that we find respectful ways to really hear each other in service of the best solutions—not only those from the most dominant voices.

If NFL players can spend 60 minutes hitting and tackling each other, and then at the conclusion of the game give each other a handshake or hug, I think we can learn something from them. This is called good sportsmanship. It’s something we teach our children to demonstrate at soccer games, so why don’t we as adults abide by this in the workplace?

This means attacking the problem and not the people. When there is disagreement on the best approach for solving a problem, don’t look to criticize those people with alternative plans. Instead, seek to fully understand and evaluate their position before presenting your own.

Seek first to understand and then to be understood, wrote Stephen R. Covey in his classic best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is not meant only for senior executives, but for personal leadership at every level in the organization. Only when you are able to fully understand another’s perspective can you hope to engage in an effective conversation.

So much misunderstanding stems from our making false assumptions and being defensive or intolerant. These prevent us from being able to actively listen to each other in order to fully understand the other’s perspective.

“The purist form of listening is to listen without memory or desire,” wrote psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. When you listen with memory, you have an old agenda. And when you listen with desire, you have a new agenda that you’re going to plug into the other person. Neither is effective to fully understand and appreciate the speaker’s perspective.

In order for us to be more united whether on a national level or in the workplace, will require us to truly engaging with each other in a respectful manner. This means seeking to understand before being understood. It requires the empathy to truly place yourself in the other person’s shoes before rejecting their perspective. It means monitoring your assumptions, defensiveness and intolerance.

United we will stand, divided we will fall.

Managing Conflict in the Workplace

September 14, 2016

Conflict occurs in all relationships. It is natural and it can be detrimental only when it is ignored or not dealt with appropriately.

When handled well at work, conflict can strengthen relationships, and lead to more energy, innovation and greater outcomes. However, when conflict is inappropriately handled in the workplace, it can lead to dysfunction in the form of increased stress, lower productivity and reduced revenue.

One in four employees are so upset by the idea of facing workplace conflict that they call in sick or are otherwise absent from work. That’s the finding from the CPP Global Human Capital Report. In addition, 10 percent of those surveyed stated that a project failed as a direct result of negative conflict, and another third said this negative conflict resulted in someone leaving the company.

Employees in American businesses say they spend on average 2.8 hours each week dealing with conflict, which collectively amounts to $359 billion lost annually to organizations!

Half of all employees surveyed see personality clashes and warring egos as the primary cause of this workplace conflict.

Conflict is unavoidable and therefore we need to learn how to appropriately deal with it if we want to be more effective and productive at work.

We are predisposed to dealing with conflict in one of five different ways, according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. These ways are: competing, accommodating, avoiding, compromising and collaborating. Each is appropriate for a given situation, but most of us are stuck—often unconsciously—using the same one or two in all situations. And this means very often ineffectively dealing with the conflict at hand.

Each conflict strategy has its time and place, and using the right one at the right time can make all the difference.

  1. Competing is assertive and uncooperative. In this mode you try to satisfy your own concerns at the other’s expense. Competing may be appropriate when you are standing up for your rights or defending your position.
  2. Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative. This is when you attempt to satisfy the other’s concerns at the expense of your own. Accommodating can be appropriate when you need to obey an order or choose to yield to another’s point of view.
  3. Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative. In this mode you are sidestepping the conflict without solving either your concern or the other’s. Avoiding can be used when it may be better not to engage in the conflict at that particular time and place. But it can be especially destructive if you don’t go back and address the issue once you do have the time.
  4. Compromising is intermediate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here is where you search for middle ground that partially satisfies each person’s concerns. Compromising may be an appropriate strategy when there isn’t time to explore concerns more thoroughly.
  5. Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative. In this strategy you are seeking a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of each person. This requires the courage to stay engaged with the other person in order to really understand all concerns and perspectives, and to learn from each other’s insights to find an agreeable conclusion to the conflict.

“Each of these four strategies for dealing with conflict can have some success,” writes author Don Yaeger in his book Great Teams: 16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently. “But Great Teams set a standard above the rest by choosing the fifth option—collaborating. This means they do their best to listen actively, consider all points of view, and stress the common purpose and shared values of the organization.”

Understanding which of the five strategies we are predisposed to using most often is key, and then learning the value of the other four and putting them into practice at the right times. In this way, we can better navigate the conflict that will occur with our colleagues.

The collaborating option has huge benefits and it pays to begin using this strategy more often when conflict occurs in your workplace.  This assertive and cooperative strategy enables you to be fully engaged, without fighting, and remain in the arena when it may be easier to flee or capitulate. While it may slow things down initially, it will ultimately result in higher engagement and trust, and, more than likely, fewer conflicts moving forward.

Getting Along to Get Things Done

November 8, 2012

The election is over and it is time for our elected officials to get to work. The American people have spoken so our leaders can stop campaigning and start governing. And governing means doing what we elected them to do, which is to get things done.

Our politicians need to follow the lead of President Obama and New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie who recently overcame ideological differences to work cooperatively and deal effectively with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The so-called looming “fiscal cliff” now has the same immediacy and perhaps greater severity to more people’s lives.

Living in this especially contentious time, we as a people seem unable to have a meaningful and respectful dialogue in order to better understand each other’s position.

In their book You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong by Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess, the authors present how a stanch conservative and a die-hard liberal can appropriately converse and agree to disagree.

“We have thus reached a point where conservatives are more interested in what Bill O’Reilly says about liberals than what their own liberal neighbors say about themselves,” write Neisser and Hess. “Likewise, many liberals ‘know’ about conservatives from reading updates on Huffington Post as opposed to getting to know actual conservative acquaintances.”

Rather than seeking to truly understand each other, we look for shortcuts from partisan media, make assumptions based on stereotypes and all too often take as fact what the pundits pontificate about. This leads to further misunderstanding and deeper resentment.

Authors Neisser and Hess explore the notion that despite political differences of people on the left and the right, many share a deep desire to work for the greater good of society. In a divided congress, it is essential that our politicians are able to do this.

It is also necessary for the rest of us to stop thinking in terms of competition between the blue and red teams, and start working together to build bridges of understanding. This understanding should demand that our elected officials no longer persist in simply holding firm to their positions, but instead find ways to compromise for the benefit of all.

Divisiveness cripples our politics, but also the rest of our lives. Only through working together in spite of conflict can we get to a shared place of understanding and growth. This requires being open and trying to really appreciate the other’s perspective. It requires having respect and taking responsibility for maintaining a positive relationship.

These traits of being open, listening for understanding, and working hard to fully appreciate the other’s perspective are vital to all our relationships. At work, assumptions you make about your colleagues will continue to keep you divided and conflicted. If instead you try to find common ground and see others for who they really are, you will be rewarded with a more congenial workplace where things are getting done.