If you think you can spend a lifetime avoiding difficult conversations then I wish you well with what will be a very dull, inconvenient life.
Every day we are required to deal with difficult conversations. The level of difficulty is subject to so many variables, but they all begin with a difference of opinion. It can feel like each party is standing on opposite sides of a watercourse, deciding how to meet: does one party swim to the other’s side, or do both parties build a bridge that meets in the middle? It could be Dead Dog Creek, QLD in a drought and take no more than a single 2x4s worth of effort to cross, or it might be the mighty Mississippi and you could drown attempting to come to an agreement. The ability to manage your way through these conversations, building a bridge and reaching a compromise, is a critical competence for any person in business, particularly those managing staff and facing clients, but is equally important in your personal life.
Every difficult conversation has three key elements:
- What happened (who said what, who thinks what, what are the facts)?
- What are we/they feeling (what emotions are you experiencing and do you understand why)?
- What does this mean to my identity (what impact will this have on my self-esteem, self-image, my ego)?
In this post I want to focus on the importance of managing your emotions through these challenging conversations and how we can go about keeping a lid on those pesky feelings. Now, emotions play an important part in life and how we relate to one another, but when it comes to difficult conversations keeping a hold on your emotions can stop these discussions from becoming arguments. What we really need to be able to do, to make these conversations effective, is to keep control by having a conscious awareness of the emotional aspect of our exchanges and the impact of those emotions if they are unchecked.
We’ll talk about a methodology that will give you the structure to control/guide these charged exchanges, but first let’s talk about how most people react.
So, listen up, I gotta tell you there are 3 ways this can go and only one of them doesn’t end in tears.
Let’s paint some scenarios
Portrait number 1, Ladies and Gentlemen, is
So you’re sitting in a meeting room, you’re frustrated, angry, and you don’t believe what you’re hearing. In fact you’re so riled that you’re about to channel the devil, when you realise, “If the devil gets out during this encounter, I am shot.” And then, one more button pushed and there it is, escaped and running rampant like a scene from The Exorcist, destroying everything in its path. Later, forensics are brought in to sift thought the carnage and the report’s not good – you’re found guilty. Yor tendency is to ‘Fight‘.
Portrait number 2 Ladies and Gentlemen, is
So you’re sitting in a meeting room, you’re frustrated and terrified, your legs are shaking and alarm bells are ringing. This is getting way too difficult. Who’d have thought you were the manager in this scenario. You look at your watch, you pray for a phone call, and then you make the call: “Sorry, I really have to go – can we finish this some other time? I have an appointment.” You take ‘Flight‘.
Both these scenarios get you nowhere, but the good news is that they get you there fast.
Portrait number 3 Ladies and Gentlemen, is
So you’re sitting in a meeting room with another member of staff, and the situation is getting uncomfortable. The conversation is getting difficult. It’s time to hold your Mona Lisa pose, with that quirky smile that belies the gravity of the situation. Time to detach from your emotions, put on the other person’s shoes for a moment, and focus on and examine the facts. That’s right – time to be calm, remain calm and practice CALM (we’ll get to that in a moment).
First things first
If you read my posts, you’ve heard me say a hundred times now, “Know thyself.” Every great behavioural lesson begins with an understanding of our own current behaviours, the position from which you intend to make change and why you need to make change – i.e. the opportunity. Are you prone to Flight or Fight? Will you avoid an issue or take it head on? Will you seek the quick and easy solution for short term gain rather than slog through the longer solution for a more sustainable outcome? How will you react in the heat of battle, which of your buttons will be pushed, what’s at stake for you – your reputation, your self esteem, your security? Phew, that’s a lot to think about. Got the answers? Don’t relax now though – when you’ve answered all those questions for yourself, you have to ask them all again in relation to the other party.
Know thyself, but know thine enemy a whole lot better.
Actually, the other party isn’t an enemy. It may seem like they are sometimes, but the sooner you are able to see them not in an adversarial manner, the more likely you are to have a successful outcome from the conversation.
We all need a method we can use in these conversations so we don’t get caught up Dead Dog Creek without a paddle, in a flood of emotions. The CALM method is described in the management book, ‘Difficult Conversations – How to discuss what matters most’, by Stone, Patton and Heen.
The CALM method is equally as valuable in handling challenging conversations with colleagues and employees, as it is with clients and (of course) personal conversations. The 4 steps are:
Step 1 – Clarify
What are the facts? What does it look like from their perspective? Make sure you really understand the situation, preferably as an independent third party would see it. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see what that feels like. What might you have done to contribute to the situation? Prepare a chronology of relevant events.
Step 2 – Address
Take responsibility. Avoid excuses. Don’t lead with a defensive “It’s not my fault!” Focus on the problem, not the peripheral emotions and outcomes that excite the emotions. What about the problem provokes an emotional response in you? Acknowledge those emotions and feelings openly and deal with them, and don’t let them fester again once they’re acknowledged. Offer amends.
Step 3 – Listen
Practice active listening. Listen for the purpose of hearing and understanding, and acknowledge what you hear (with sincerity). Be conscious of your own and their body language (what does that say about each of you?). Paraphrase what they are saying to confirm that you understand, and reflect to acknowledge their feelings – “You appear to be very excited…” In a successful conversation, the majority of your time,perhaps 80 or 90%, will be spent listening, and only a small proportion telling.
Step 4 – Manage
Focus on solutions. Make sure you have planned and you know what is an acceptable outcome and where you’re prepared to negotiate – then do your best to anticipate the same for the other party. You can avoid assigning blame by focusing on how misunderstandings occurred. In the end, what you want to do is agree on courses of action with win/win outcomes.
Managing the motion of emotions
Managing your own emotions is a critical challenge. You can’t manage the other party’s emotions, only your own, but remaining calm can influence the other party, and may prevent the situation from escalating. Of course it is important to display appropriate empathy.
If your prone to fight, check your ego at the door. I recommend rehearsing. Try to anticipate what reactions there might be, and consider which of those reactions is likely to trigger a response in you. When you’ve understood that you can deal with the little man on your shoulder before the meeting begins. Why is it riling you up – what do you feel is being ignored or misunderstood? Then look at it again. Pause, take a breath, and don’t react. Not everything is a slight on you personally or your performance. Distance ‘you’ from the issue. Bring it back to the facts, bring it back to CALM.
If you’re prone to flight, then again, rehearse. Be prepared. Continue to contribute to the conversation instead of opting into silence. Be assertive. Focussing on fact rather than emotion removes the fear of getting it wrong or causing offence, and makes the situation less threatening. Above all, don’t panic – remain CALM.
I hope you’ll be inspired now to get out there and tackle some difficult conversations. I’d be really pleased to hear how you go. Please leave your comments.
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Art Work – A huge thankyou to my nephew James Westmore for his Mona Lisa artwork this week.