Eighth Edition
 July 13, 2011
The Art of the Difficult Conversation – Part II of a Four Part Series

Start with the Heart
Do you know what the sucker’s choice is? It is the myth that when facing a difficult conversation, either we can be honest and attack the other person or we can be kind and withhold the truth. When you refuse the sucker’s choice, you consider a third option: How can I be both honest and respectful?

In part I of this series last month, I mentioned that the foundational step #1 in the art of the difficult conversation is to “Start with the Heart.” Step #2 is: Clarify Your Goal.
First, clarify what you want.
“What I want is for my co-worker to recognize that he has let me down and commit from now on to be dependable.”

Second, clarify what you don’t want.
“What I don’t want is for us to engage in a heated conversation that creates bad feelings and doesn’t lead to a constructive change.”

Third, combine the two statements above with an “and” question that forces you to search for productive and creative options.
“How can I have a candid conversation with my co-worker about being more dependable and avoid creating bad feelings or wasting our time?”

In order to effectively implement the above conversation, Patterson et al in Crucial Conversations state that the two parties in a difficult conversation need to get to step #3: Develop a Shared Pool of Meaning. That means you find a way to get all relevant information out into the open. Have a dialogue, not a monologue! As Patterson et al state: “Dialogue is the free flow of meaning between two or more people”. How do you get this “free flow?” Here are three ways you can do it:

  • Make it safe
  • Be curious – not angry or frightened.
  • When safety is at risk, step out of the content of the conversation, make it safe, and then step back in.

My father related the following story to me about a time when he was a supervisor at a newspaper group in Sri Lanka some fifty years ago. Although he didn’t use the terms above, I now realize that what he did was develop a shared pool of meaning and so avoided losing a valued employee. The story went like this: One of the men under my father’s supervision had always been a dependable and hard worker. However, co-workers began to complain that this man was not doing his fair share of work and was coming in late habitually. My father talked to the man privately without accusing him of anything. Curiously, he asked him what had changed in his life. Not feeling threatened, the man opened up. He said that his wife had recently had a baby. Not having a refrigerator, he had to buy baby milk fresh every morning before leaving for work. That was causing his tardiness. Once the problem was identified, the company made arrangements to have fresh milk delivered to the man’s house so that he could leave on time for work. By making it safe for the man to share his problem, a satisfactory solution was found where each person (the man, his wife, and the man’s co-workers) felt valued.

Watch for part III of this series on “Difficult Conversations” in the August E-newsletter.

Quote to Think About

““Respect is like air. If you take it away, it’s all people think about. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation, the interaction is no longer about the original purpose – it is now about defending dignity.”
-- Crucial Conversations, Patterson et al.

Recommended Reading

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High
by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

"This book is packed with theory as well as guidelines for practical application of methods for enhancing inter-personal effectiveness and handling difficult conversations. I have found it to be beneficial in my professional practice as a communications coach and trainer. I'm happy to recommend it."

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