How to have a productive, difficult conversation
You've been having trouble telling an employee that his work is
erratic. Every time you try to discuss his performance lately, he
gets defensive and accuses you of picking on him unfairly. Yet now
you are in crunch time on a critical project in which you have a
great deal at stake. How can you point out your employee's behavior
in a productive manner?
With great care-but not necessarily without some proficiency,
argue a trio of trainers who have produced a new book titled "Difficult
Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most." Doug Stone, Bruce
Patton, and Sheila Heen grew this book out of their work as trainers
at the Harvard Negotiation Project, where they discovered a number
of techniques that helped people deal with the stickiest of situations.
Their book joins a handful of recent others and a growing number
of consultants who are teaching the discipline of dialogue. Dialogue
is a structured form of communication in which participants address
the thinking behind their thinking in an attempt to decipher, and
defuse, intractable habits of thinking and interaction. All of these
tools are incorporating a growing body of research and practice
into the oldest, and most important tool that managers have: conversation.
The theory behind these theories is similar. You can have more
productive conversations by becoming more attentive to the process
of the conversation than its mere surface matter. By recognizing
the personal matters affecting how you "spin" data into opinions,
and examining how your presentation is perceived by the other individual,
you can use these uncomfortable times as opportunities to learn
about yourself and your partner.
"These exercises are designed to get you to stop, listen, and
figure out how to conduct a conversation in a manner that gets the
objective facts out on the table and does not let personal baggage
interfere with the process," says President Peter Gould of the Berwind
Financial Group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Stone et al argue that all conversations are really three conversations
rolled into one: the "what happened" conversation, the feelings
conversation, and identity conversation. Failing to reveal the true
substance at each of these levels causes conversations to degenerate
into heated and fruitless battles.
The authors suggest that managers begin with the so-called "identity
conversation," in which the players state what is at stake here
for them-how their feelings are affecting their behavior. "When
the conversation gets difficult, it is often because of what is
going on with your own identity conversation," Stone says. They
do so through first asking themselves what is really at stake in
this conversation. How does the conversation reinforce feelings
and images they have about themselves? This identity conversation
can only be discerned with managers also address their emotional
conversation by assessing the feelings that this exchange brings
up for them.
Armed with this emotional and personal information, both members
in a conversation can begin to develop shared meaning, and shared
purpose. You still need to have an agenda for your conversation.
Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by having this conversation.
Bringing in the emotion and identity conversation allows you to
see problems as differences between each of your identity stories,
and to begin to move away from blame, and towards a resolution that
recognizes both your viewpoints as legitimate.
Stone and others suggest the following principles as methods of
moving from conflict to cooperation:
Be Clear About Your Data
People often argue about the meaning of events because they start
with very different notions of what actually happened. Conversations
spin out of control as people react to their interpretation of the
facts rather than the actual matter. That's why you can prevent
conversations from blowing up early by agreeing on what really happened.
Acknowledge Your Own Feelings
It's not enough to recognize that the other person has an emotional
and personal history affecting their spin; so do you. Until you
feel comfortable making this factor visible, it will sabotage your
communications, says Stone, who distinguishes between recognizing
that you have feelings and actually airing them as a means of seeking
mutual understanding. Sharing your feelings does not change your
relationship or reduce your authority. Rather, says Heen, it creates
greater authenticity within a structure.
Really listen. Listening means more than waiting for your turn
to speak. Good listeners ask open-ended questions, actively solicit
what the other has to say, and pay complete attention. Most importantly,
they listen to themselves as well-being careful to note their own
assessments as they arise, and suspending their judgements.
Reframe The Issue
As you begin to develop a new understanding of what happened and
what the consequences were, re-state the problem together. That
is, as you establish how your conversation is rooted in individual
histories and stories you have an opportunity to essentially begin
the conversation anew with each discovery.
Don't Avoid Disagreements
Explore their source. Conflict and disagreement are natural consequences
of any honest exchange. Skilled conversationalists allow warring
viewpoints to exist without making one right and one wrong. Rather,
Every individual would like to believe that his or her opinion/assessment
is the only correct one. Your goal should not be to choose which
is the right one--but to examine how both of you have drawn such
different conclusions. As Sheila Heen says, "Be honest about the
struggle in a way that makes the conversation more genuine."
Seek Mutual Understanding
Just as "win-win" negotiations find agreeable resolution on both
ends, productive conversations seek to find a satisfying end for
both parties. This means that both parties should discuss what they
are trying to accomplish with the conversation, and make an effort
to accommodate both their purposes. Naturally, there are conversations-such
as firing somebody, for example-that aren't pleasant no matter how
skilled both parties are at their conversation. In those cases,
says Stone, the best that you can do is handle the process skillfully:
"You can set standards: listen, treat the other person with compassion,
and be fair."
Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas
Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (Viking.)
to do for difficult conversations what Getting To Yes does for negotiations:
provide a simple framework and set of exercises for people to change
the tenor of their conversations from heated battles to learning
To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Avon Books).
employees are not your children, nor should you treat them as such.
The value of this book is not to enfantalize your workers, but to
see the absolute correlation between how well you listen and how
well others listen to you. In simple, actionable chapters it shows
how to surface and de-fuse otherwise dangerous feelings, often by
simply recognizing, acknowledging, and in some cases, re-phrasing
them when presented to you.
(This article appeared in Harvard Communication Update)
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