Why are difficult conversations so difficult? The reason is fairly simple: because you are stressed out. Why are you stressed out? Because in your mind you’ve already made up an option about what lead to the difficult conversation you are about to have.
And you are most likely wrong.
Your brain is a marvelous, intriguing, high performing and very creative genius. It is also highly egocentric (after all, it has to keep you alive) and fine-tuned to detect threats to your physical or emotional integrity (so it can keep you alive). That means that your brain has already created a very plausible reason for whatever happened to lead up to that difficult conversation – a very personal reason.
- Your team member repeatedly misses deadlines, because they don’t respect you.
- Your work colleague is insisting in changing a process, because they don’t trust in your assessment.
- Your lead insists on micromanaging you, because they think you can’t take decisions on your own.
Your brain assumes that the world is revolving around you, and you alone.
As a result, you start your difficult conversation with a barrel of “why”-bullets. Why did you do this? Why did you not do that? Why can’t you EVER remember to do…? You can guess what the other person’s brain will do now: light up flaring red in flight or fight mode.
You’ve just turned a difficult conversation into a tit-for-tat of blame and justification.
A script for a third option
What if it didn’t matter who’s right? What if you chose curiosity over instant blaming? These two tools can help you to prepare and to survive your next difficult conversation:
Preparation: find 10 reasons for why THIS THING could happen to you.
For example, if your team member repeatedly misses deadlines, find 10 reasons why YOU would miss a deadline. This is not to find a justification for your team member, but rather to entertain your brain in the notion that there are more than just the most fatalistic self-deprecating reasons that it came up with first.
At the very minimum, your brain will be thoroughly confused about HOW this could have happened. Confusion, in this case, is good, because it creates curiosity. And curiosity is much more powerful than anger.
Starting the conversation: Situation – Behaviour – Impact
Whoever you are having the difficult situation with probably knows this is not just a social chat. So it’s very possible they are coming in just as tense as you were (before the aforementioned exercise). Instead of engaging into the blaming war, use this blueprint:
- Explain what happened.
- Explain the impact this had on you / on others.
- Ask for their thoughts.
- Validate what you’ve heard in your own words.
- Move forward to a solution.
I noticed that you were late for the last three meetings. When we wait on you, this means we have less time to actually discuss our topics, which puts a lot of stress on everybody on the team.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this?
Important, don’t skip step 4, for example:
Oh, so your partner’s new job means that dropping off the kids at school now is your responsibility, and school doesn’t open until 8:30. So, does this mean, 9pm is usually too early for you?
Maybe the team member wants to add some additional details (like, once the construction works on his street are done, they’ll be back home on time for the meeting – so this is a temporary situation). Now, you can move forward to a solution,
What can we do to solve this for all of us? What works for you?
Maybe you move the meeting to 15 minutes later during the next 3 month. Maybe you find an entirely new meeting schedule. Whatever works for all of you. The important bit is this: It’s not that they hate you, that they think your meetings are as enticing as watching paint dry – they simply had a conflicting event they thought was not work-related and thus not important enough to bring up.
As they say, communication is oxygen. It turns out, curiosity is your window to access all that fresh and invigorating oxygen.