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  • Ela Stilwell
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Wrapping Your Arms Around Tough Conversations

Whether it’s in our professional or personal life, there are certain conversations we don’t look forward to, where we need to get our message across in a way that helps people change their behaviours or how they think.  Borrowing the language of Kerry Patterson, these are Crucial Conversations.

In his book, Patterson says people who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool; even ideas that at first glance appear controversial or at odds with their own beliefs. The challenge is when we get into crucial conversations, they have an emotional impact on us, and we may find ourselves getting tense or anxious.

Our blog posts are a condensed version of our podcast! Listen to the episode linked above to hear Rod take you through this content.

What is a crucial conversation and why does it matter?

A crucial conversation is a dialogue between two people where the stakes are high. If it doesn’t succeed, we can have other consequences or problems.

The additional challenge layered on top of conversations is our reaction. We naturally seek to avoid conflict, either preemptively or by storming out when the dialogue gets too heavy. The longer we put off these conversations, the more damage is done, either to the relationship, the project, or even our own physical wellbeing. There is lots of data out there showing that when we hold things inside or when we carry grudges, we’re actually physically damaging ourselves.

On a fundamental level, organizations and projects that avoid having these tough conversations have a high turnover and significantly less engagement. When we don’t share things, confront the wrong issues, keep secrets and ignore disagreements, we aren’t doing ourselves any favours.

The case for having these crucial conversations is bolstered by the ultimate effect of having this dialogue: they clear the air and allow us to move forward more productively.

The case for having these crucial conversations is bolstered by the ultimate effect of having this dialogue: they clear the air and allow us to move forward more productively.

Now, there’s a process, of course, to make those conversations work for everyone’s benefit.

Like other difficult things, we need to build the muscle to have crucial conversations and step into the danger. This includes building up the emotional safety within a relationship or team and creating the metaphorical space that allows you to have the conversation in a way that doesn’t cause harm or challenge someone’s emotional well-being.

First, look in the mirror

We need to start by taking a step back and asking ourselves, “why am I doing this?” Is it clear in your mind what your motivation is and what you want to get out of this conversation?

In some cases, we may be having a conversation because there’s a critical component of the project that we can’t move forward unless we resolve certain things between individuals. And in other cases, we’re being pre-emptive, we’re having the conversation in order to set the stage for where we go from here.

Part of this includes ensuring we are in the right headspace to encourage emotional safety and have a productive dialogue. Why do we want to have this confrontation? The only person we have control over, the only person we can change, is ourselves.

We have to consider our true motivation. Is it truly to make the project environment we’re working in better, or is it because we have a bone to pick and we just want to get it out? We’re human. We’re messy. And many of us attack things with a level of emotion that maybe isn’t always serving us very well.

Second, look outward

Once we’ve established that we are in the right head space for the crucial conversation, we have to ask, “Is it the right time for them?” Making sure the other party is open to and ready for this dialogue is crucial.

We’re really talking about dialogue here, which is a two-way process.

In the podcast, Rod share’s something he learned about the word “dialogue:”

Many times over the years, I used to use the term discussion,” until I discovered that the word discussion comes from the same root word as percussion, or concussion, it was a hitting thing. “Dialogue,” on the other hand, is a two way exchange, where the person I’m talking with is as interested and has as much at stake in resolving this as I do. So how do we make it safe for that other person? One of the ways is by asking questions. Reflect for a moment, if you will. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you went in thinking something specific was the issue and discovered, maybe to your chagrin, that in fact, that wasn’t the issue at all? I certainly have lots of times where I’ve played out the scenario in my mind so many times that I’m going to have this conversation because this is what is happening. And when I get there, I discovered that that wasn’t the issue at all. So let’s start by asking some questions, creating that safe space.”

Third, seek common ground

Ultimately, though, we need to come to some type of agreement, some type of action that the conversation is going to initiate. If it’s a shared problem, start the conversation by agreeing on the things that we both believe in or perhaps values we both share.

It all starts with both agreeing that we’re here to achieve a certain outcome. How we get there may differ. Our opinions may not be the same. But we both need to agree that the reason we’re sitting together or standing together, the reason we’re having this conversation at all, is because we both want a mutually agreeable outcome. If the two of you can’t agree on that, well, frankly, the conversation is probably not going to go anywhere.

Once common ground is established, things will change a little bit. In fact, we might discover that having shared our common values, shared the things that we agree on together, that’s 80% of the problem already solved. And there’s really only 20% left to work on.

Fourth, walk into the danger - with heart

Once we’re clear on our motives and we found some common ground, it’s time to get into the tough issues, and the best way to do that is to start with the heart. We all have emotions, and being earnest and speaking about what you believe in is a great way to stay focused.

Rod likes to identify and write down the three or four things that he really wants to get across. This helps him stay focused and have a physical reminder of the purpose of the conversation so he doesn’t get too off track.

Fifth, navigate the conversation

Once the conversation starts, you’re not in the clear. Rod has some suggestions on how to keep the conversation on track.

Call a time out

To keep moving forward, we sometimes need to call a time-out. It’s not a sign of weakness to say, “whoa, I want to regroup.” That’s where you get to use your real mental powers to step outside of your brain and consider what’s going on. And when you’re humble enough and candid enough to recognize that the conversation isn’t going where you think it’s healthy for us to go, you’ll discover that the person you’re speaking with now has permission to do the same; to stop the process at any time to regroup.  Sometimes you need to move away, take a break, pause and come back to it.

Observe body language

Observing body language, especially in a virtual setting, is tricky. We encourage you to have your cameras on, maybe even to stand up, so your body language is more visible through the screen. Seeing the whole person makes us more vulnerable, but that vulnerability allows us to dig deep.

Consider how you come across when under stress. Our bodies often betray us; they tell what’s going on in our brains before our mouths can articulate it.

In the podcast, Rod shares some things he’s observed about his body language when under stress:

When I get stressed, for instance, my voice tends to get louder, or my language can become a little more colorful. I need to condition myself before the conversation, so that when I feel those things happening, I take a deep breath, maybe call a timeout, and reorient or refocus myself. I actually take a moment to write down the warning signs. Things like talking too fast or getting louder. When I hear myself getting louder, I know that that’s a cue to step back. We can only control ourselves, we can’t control the other person. So if you’re not in control, how can you expect them to be in control?”

Controlling your stories

What are the stories you’re telling yourself? We all tell ourselves stories all the time, Brené Brown, a best-selling author and researcher, discusses the importance of understanding that we all have our own stories that we think are true and that make up our reality.

Think about the stories that you’ve gone over in your head that you’ve probably told yourself many times. Review those stories And then have an open mind to be able to change the stories if you need to.

Often, those stories we’re telling ourselves are based on our fears or anxiety, not reality. Those are stories are part of how we think and are our reality, but they’re not the other person’s reality.

If you’ve ever walked into a meeting and said to yourself, “this is going to be a disaster,” the universe has a great sense of humour and it goes badly. When we tell ourselves a story that says, “I’ve mastered this, I’m able to stay focused, I believe that we can have a positive outcome,” the differences will be amazing.

If you change the story, you can change the outcome. . What is the story that’s actually being played out, not the one that we’re afraid will be played out. Get back to facts, not opinions, watch out for those stories, and be aware that we can be sabotaged by our own minds. Challenging how you think and the stories you tell yourself can also help you look at other possible solutions.

Sixth, what's next?

In wrapping up and coming to a solution, Rod encourages “what-if” thinking.

This way of thinking means you don’t come across as hitting absolutes but rather exploring possible paths together.

It’s about encouraging testing. Try a solution out for a little while. See how it goes. Come back at the end of the week, and see whether things are any different.

Investing time in preparing for and thinking through how to have those tough conversations will not only ease your peace of mind but may strengthen the relationship. It will also give you the courage to have the conversation, create the right environment, work on yourself, and change your stories, allowing for different possibilities and different outcomes.

Author: Ela Stilwell