Leadership Advisory: Difficult Conversations
"Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional."
Difficult conversations are a normal part of life. No matter what personal or professional gains you make, there will always be difficult conversations that have to take place.So what could you learn that would make them easier? Better yet, what could you learn that would make them more impactful? I’m about to tell you.
This approach was born out of collaboration between the Family Institute of Cambridge and Harvard Law School’s negotiation workshop. What can this new approach suggest that you haven’t already tried? Quite a bit.
So you have a difficult situation to deal with.Perhaps the old friend you hired has become a liability to the company, and you have been chosen to fire him. Or maybe the project you are working on took twice as long as you told the client it would, but you can’t afford not to charge for the extra time.
The Harvard Negotiation Project teaches us that with each difficult conversation, there are actually three conversations happening. That is, there are three undercurrents driving the energy behind the conversation.
1.The “What Happened” Conversation
This is the disparity between each parties’ interpretation of what has happened. Who is right? Who is to blame?
2.The Feelings Conversation
Whose feelings are valid? Should they be acknowledged, or peeled off of the conversation? How can that happen? How should you address feelings without walking into a landmine?
3.The Identity Conversation
What does this situation mean to each of us? What judgments are we likely making about each other? How is this affecting self-esteem?
Let’s face it, in the “What Happened” conversation, no matter how we phrase it, we are usually telling the other side that they are to blame. The fact is that there isn’t a right or wrong. You may reply, “But I KNOW that he is wrong!”
Actually, the only certainty is that you and your counterpart have completely conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values. Move away from the “truth” assumption from proving you are right, to understanding the differing perceptions of each side. Shift the focus away from establishing blame and toward an acknowledgment that we can never truly know other peoples’ intentions.
The “Feelings” conversation is taking place at the same time. Regardless of how much you try to check your emotions at the door, there are emotional undercurrents to most difficult conversations.E ven more, difficult situations don’t just involve feelings, they are based on feelings.Sometimes a situation is so sensitive that feelings can’t even be broached. Typically, you will benefit from knowing how to acknowledge and talk about the feelings associated with the situation.
The “Identity” conversation is often the most subtle and complex. However, it offers leverage in managing anxiety and improving your results in the other two conversations. This conversation asks “What does this say about me?” Even when you are the one who is delivering the bad news, identity still comes into play.How will people see you after this conversation?
Here is a checklist from Difficult Conversations, by The Harvard Negotiation Project. Use this as a map for your next difficult conversation.
- Prepare by walking through the three conversations.
- Check your purposes and decide whether to raise the issue at all.
- Don’t start from your version or your counterpart’s version of the situation.Start from the “third story” of the differences between your stories.
- Listen carefully to their story and then tell yours.
- Problem solve by considering options that meet the most important concerns and interests
As you can tell from this checklist, this is really about conflict resolution and starts by being able to effectively listen to the perspectives of the other person in the conflict situation and depersonalize the conflict. What would the conversation be like if you spent the first two minutes of every interaction just making sure you’ve understood the other party’s perspective?
A successful outcome of a difficult conversation is realized when the organization wins no matter what.