Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mastering Difficult Conversations

Do you dread bringing up a problem in your relationship because you know your partner will be blinded by emotion? Are your 1:1s at work just happy recaps of your weekend because nobody wants to bring up the hard issues? Sometimes conversations are just plain hard, but it is possible to learn how to have them effectively. I've personally learned a lot from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, and have even put some of it into practice already.

The book introduces three conversations that are really taking place in a difficult conversation: what actually happened, how feelings factor into it, and how the participants' identities might be affected. When you're about to embark on a difficult conversation with someone, you should first walk through each of these three conversations to sort out where your story came from as well as the other person's, to "explore your emotional footprint," and to reflect on what's at stake in terms of how you see yourself.

Then, you need to determine what your real purpose in the conversation is. Generally, it's a good idea to come from a place of learning, which means keeping your mind open to the fact that you could have been wrong about how you viewed the situation.

When it's time to talk, you want to start from the "third" story – that is, you need to "describe the problem as the difference between your stories." You have to pretend you're an innocent bystander, and invite the other person to become your partner rather than your adversary in sorting out the problem in front of you.

During the discussion, you have to be an amazing active listener (so much easier said than done!). Acknowledge, paraphrase to check understanding, question...and continually reframe to keep on track. Then, finally, you can get to the problem-solving stage.

A few key takeaways for me:

  • Never lay blame; instead, talk about contribution, and try to reframe the conversation to help the other person do the same. Every problem arises because of contributions from both sides, even if the split is 95% to 5%.
  • Pay special attention to feelings. They are always there, and they can get really complex. Even in a professional situation, it is ok – and important – to discuss how various actions and outcomes make you feel. It can help to sort through feelings before the conversation so you can unpack complex bundles of emotions and better explain your perspective.
  • Be mindful of your identity, and how it has been affected by the problem you are facing. The reason that the conversation is so difficult might be because you have to face the fact that you may not be acting in alignment with how you see yourself.
I've used the ideas in the book already to talk through how a friend might be able to approach their next 1:1 at work. The feelings story was of particular importance in this case, and not something that my friend would have talked about normally.

I have also found the knowledge useful when faced with a difficult conversation started by someone else. Where I might have normally become defensive and frustrated, we were able to resolve our problem somewhat quickly. (Now I just have to make sure I don't do the same dumb thing again.)

I think this book would likely have something useful in it for just about anyone. If you're in a leadership position of any kind, it will be all the more valuable.


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