Having tough conversations that are necessary is something we tend to shy away from. Because sitting down with someone and telling them off or holding them accountable is very uncomfortable. We don’t know what it will do to the relationship. We might be scared how the person reacts.
Kerry Patterson and her colleagues researched the topic and summarised it in “Crucial Accountability”. Here’s what I learnt from this book.
Before you have a tough conversation
Do you know what you want to talk about?
The authors suggest that the first step you take is thinking hard about what you want to talk about. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is this the first time happening?
2. Does this happen repeatedly?
3. What implications does this have for our relationship?
If you think #1 is most appropriate, talk about the behaviour. The other person continues to fall short of the expectations you set (#2) talk about the pattern. And if you have the feeling that this might be about your relationship (#3), talk about the relationship.
How do you know if you have to talk about to behaviour, the pattern or the relationship?
Continue to explore:
What are the consequences of this issue?
What might have been their intention?
What do I want for myself, the other person and the relationship?
What don’t I want for myself, the other person and the relationship?
Looking at your answers to all of these questions you should have a fairly clear idea what you want to talk about.
Do you know what’s going on in your own head?
There’s one more thing that you need to do before you can go and talk to the other person. You first need to get clear on what story you’re telling yourself. This means getting clarity on your own thoughts and feelings.
Let’s assume that all people are reasonable, rational and decent. Tap into your curiosity and ask:
Why would such a person do what they did?
What is my role in this problem? How did I contribute to the situation?
When we’re looking for reasons why reasonable, rational and decent people would do one thing or another, the authors explain that it comes down to motivation and ability.
Ok, all the pre-work is done. Now it’s time to have the conversation.
How to have a tough conversation
What should I say?
When you start the conversation, keep in mind that the most important thing is to create safety. If you miss this, the other person becomes defensive and the conversation goes nowhere quickly.
It’s not your job to tell the other person off right out of the gate. Instead start by sharing your view of what you had expected and what you actually observed.
Stop yourself from assuming anything, but stay curious as you ask “What happened?”, inviting the other person to share their side of the story.
The answer you hear will reveal if the problem is caused by the motivation or ability factor. Or maybe even both. This’ll give you clues about how to proceed.
What if they don’t want to?
If you’ve determined that the issue was caused by motivational factors, remember that people are motivated by the consequences they anticipate. Help the other person to explore the consequences of their behaviour on themselves and others (you, colleagues and the company).
Getting pushback? Keep searching for the consequences that matter to the other person. What do they really care about? What would motivate them to change their behaviour?
Before leaving the conversation, be sure to agree clearly on who does what and when the two of you want to follow-up.
What if they’re not able to?
This relates to the ability side of the model. In this case try to make it easier for the other person to do what’s expected. Explore the causes together (Not enough time or resources? Lack of support?) and help them come up with their own ideas for solutions.
The point is to make things possible and a little more appealing.
Once you found a solution and enabled the other person, see if they now meet expectations. (Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we want to do it.) If not, you’re back to talking about motivation.
Stay on topic!
One of the most difficult things in tough conversations is not to get sidetracked. All the Small things that might pop left and right from the topic you initially wanted to discuss.
To decide whether you should stay with the original topic or switch over to the new one ask yourself:
is the new problem more serious?
is it more time sensitive?
is the new problem more emotional?
is it more important to the other person?
If any of these questions gets a YES, you should address the new topic first.
So being flexible is good – but not at the expense of being focused:
to be flexible note new problems, select the right problem to talk about in this moment, resolve the new problem and return to the original one.
to stay focused make sure to deal with one problem at the time, and consciously choose which issue to deal with. Don’t become sidetracked like a leaf in the wind.
What to do when …
… the other is pulling away or pushing back
Both of these reactions stem from fear. so the first thing you need to do do is to to step out the original conversation and create an environment of safety. Then you can continue to original conversation.
… there are broken promises
You have two options when someone made a promise to you and then just decided not to keep it. oftentimes people then switch to the content, instead of discussing that this was an insult to the relationship.
The issues sometimes might seem very small like a promise if someone sends you an email and interest didn’t. it will all go nuts when we live in a world where people can choose which promises they keep and which they can break.
So the best thing to do if something comes up and you can’t keep your commitment, let the other one know as soon as you can.
Someone to trust come on don’t talk about the content or the original problem, talk about the broken commitment.
… the other is oh so angry
Make sure it’s safe for you and people won’t chase you with the letter opener.
When emotions are strong don’t try to continue with the argument. you need to deal with the emotion first. The content of the argument is not important in this moment,. instead, dissipate the emotion.
what not to do: get angry yourself, tell them did your life is way worse, be patronising. Instead, ask what’s going on for them to stop the curious and explore the stories themselves that make them angry.
How to get a win-win in difficult conversations
To get the difficult conversation back on track, try these suggestions from HBR:
Shift the relationship from opposition to partnership.
Reframe your purpose from convincing to learning.
Verbalize your intention.
Examine the other’s perspective with openness and curiosity.
Acknowledge your part.
Seek input to problem solving.