How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations get derailed all the time, mainly because of the uninvited 3rd participant – our internal voice.  As a result, we don’t know how to talk with each other but instead we get caught up talking at each other, and everything goes downhill from there. We need a new way of doing things. Fortunately, there is. Read on to see how to make the dialogue effective when it matters most.

Enter Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.  Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen discuss (pun intended) the underlying structure of conversations, how to initiate a contentious conversation without anyone becoming defensive, and shift from the mindset of emotions to problem solving. Sheila Heen herself spoke at a conference BIG attended and went into great detail on her team’s findings.

Not surprisingly, most difficult conversations are unproductive because most people approach them emotionally, from their gut. But this is the problem. When we come at it like this, we tend to personalize things. When your business partner says “why are you late with that expense report again,” we hear a personal attack, something like “why are you lazy” or “why do you always procrastinate?” This is where the conversation gets derailed.

We need to learn to quite our internal voices that are conversing in our heads. Now if you’re reading this and you are thinking to yourself, “What?  I don’t have any internal voices!” – THAT’s your inner voice!  The crucial insight of this research is that there really are two separate conversations going on. There is the explicit conversation, what is actually said, and then there is the internal, implicit conversation, what is heard.


Racecars or Train Wreck?

Sheila Heen demonstrated this masterfully in an enacted conflict between two startup business partners. The first, let’s call her Abigail, was focused on the company’s finances. She was in the middle of filling out financial statements when her partner, let’s call him Bruce, walks in, ready to pitch his next big idea. There are clients coming into town and he wants to thrill them to ensure they get the sale. One word – racecars! Bruce wants to spend some extra money to have a day at the track with these executives, allowing each of them to take turns driving a Formula 1 car around a track, talking about the proposal during the event and over dinner later.

Impractical? Yes, but Bruce sees himself as trying to do what’s best for the business, taking a little risk to ensure some new clients. Abigail, looking at their current income statement and balance sheet, thinks there is no money in the budget for these shenanigans. Both have something legitimate to say.

When Bruce comes in to pitch his idea, Abigail freaks out and starts worrying about the budget. “There’s no way we can afford this.” But Bruce doesn’t hear that. He only sees rejection, and thinks she is shutting all his ideas down without a fair hearing. Ms. Heen has two other actors come out at this point to demonstrate the dual conversations going on. Whenever one interlocutor says something, the backup actors – portraying the voices in their heads – say what the recipient is hearing.


Stop the Insanity!

After letting this discursive train wreck go off the rails for a few minutes, Sheila interjects and discusses what we can do differently. Rather than focusing on the behavior or the issue itself, we can instead examine the other person’s drivers. Pause for a moment and be curious.  What are they actually motivated by? What are they actually worried about? Where might they take things personally? Once we know this, we can frame the conversation in a way that speaks to them nonthreateningly.

We must also remember our own drivers and control the voices in our own heads by giving the other person the benefit of a doubt and assuming the best intentions. By bringing feeling out into the explicit conversation we can also be honest and ensure that the other person realizes how we are seeing things.


Seeing Eye to Eye

Restarting the conversation, we see how each party could have approached things in a much more productive manner. Bruce could have led by acknowledging Abigail’s concern, her driver. “I know this budget is tight this month, but I have this idea that I think will pay off in the long run.” Rather than immediately rejecting it entirely, Abigail could acknowledge his driver as well, the need to impress the new clients, and try to find a way to accomplish both goals. “I hear you, but look at the numbers. We also need to run a profit on this deal, how about X?” Better yet, using a “yes, and” statement would simultaneously make Bruce feel heard while also getting her point across. “Yes, and look at the numbers.”

All difficult conversations are at risk of being derailed and becoming unproductive, or worse counter-productive. By changing the way we approach the dialogue and quieting the voices inside our heads, we can ensure that our own difficult conversations stay productive and undamaging.

One final insight Difficult Conversations provides – separate impact from intent. Similar to giving someone the benefit of a doubt, separating what their actions actually do from what they intended them to do allows you to maintain your relationship with the person without thinking they actually meant to cause damage. Your coworker may have been late getting that report filed to you, but maybe their intent was to spiff it up before sending it in.

Although it is harder and more time consuming, having one difficult conversation the right way is definitely better than ten the wrong way. So, whether it’s your spouse, your business partner, or a parent, a difficult conversation needs a plan and a few ground rules. Remember these insights next time “we need to talk” comes up!

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