Difficult Discussions

When conversations turn ugly, you don’t have to.

Have you ever disagreed with someone on a topic that you cared about? The conversation may have started innocently enough, but before you know it, tempers flare up and the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. As adrenalin pumps into your bloodstream, what started as a harmless discussion is about to take an ugly turn into a full-blown war!

This was the scenario in which Sam and Jack found themselves. It was time for the annual end-of-year performance review. Sam was discussing how he had performed over the past year with Jack, his boss. Jack knew that Sam was an exceptional employee and a valuable member of his team. He had been consistent in delivering results over the years. This time however, the discussion went south very quickly. Sam felt under-appreciated by Jack’s comments. There were disagreements on how the results Sam delivered during the past year had helped the business. At the end, Sam stormed out of the meeting room. Two months later, he sent in his resignation. Jack had lost a valuable resource.

When conversations get to the stage described above, many of us are no longer listening to the other person. We are thinking about how to respond and refute whatever we’re hearing. Or not hearing. Acclaimed author and leadership expert, Stephen R. Covey said,

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

This is truer when conversations become difficult. When we are in this mode, we miss important details that could have steered the exchange away from troubled waters.

Assumptions, Motives & Intent

More often than not, our frames of mind do a lot to influence how we respond during these difficult discussions. If we believe that the other person is not acting with our best interest, the natural reaction is to defend our turf. Unconsciously, we attribute unholy motives to whatever our senses pick up.

An innocent comment such as “you sure do look good today” could generate responses ranging from, “Thank you; that’s so nice of you!” to “What do you mean I look good today?! Are you saying I don’t look good on other days?” and everything in-between. In today’s culture, this may even result in sexual harassment accusations if it involves people of opposite sexes, especially if the relationship is not one of mutual trust.

Instead of attributing the worst of motives, it’s always good to assume positive intent. Until proven otherwise, why don’t you assume that what you’re seeing and hearing are done with the best of intentions? This could really help, particularly in situations where those assumptions eventually turn out to be wrong.

The Past Comes to Play

In other situations, prior interactions with the other person could affect how a new discussion turns out. This is because we have a natural tendency to attribute and impute the content and perceptions of past exchanges with a person into a present situation.

A few months ago, I gave a ride to someone after church. Afterwards, my wife asked me if I had any discussion with the person during the trip. My response?

What do you think? You thought both of us just sat there mute for 15 minutes?

Think about that. Her question did not warrant the kind of response I gave. At the root of it was a quick story I must have unconsciously told myself between her question and my response.

Why is she asking me this question? Why does she care about whether or not we spoke? She assumed I didn’t speak to him and was trying to say I should have. That’s another way she’s trying to control what I do. She always wants to be in control!

While I didn’t actually go through this “story” in my head before responding, experts tell us that’s exactly what we do. In their best-selling book, Crucial Conversations, the authors assert that we tell ourselves stories such as these, sometimes in the twinkle of an eye. To help in these situations, they recommend that you calm down and get back to the actual facts, instead of these made-up stories.

Avoid the Fool’s Choice

In the same book, a Crucial Conversation is defined as one in which the stakes are high, there are differences of opinion and emotions are strong. Researches done by the authors revealed that many of us believe that we only have two choices on how to approach these conversations: speak up and ruin the relationship or be quiet and suffer in silence. They call these the Fool’s Choice. Their recommendation is to avoid it.

It is possible to be both honest and respectful when confronted with these challenging situations. When we learn to find a way to get all relevant information in the open from both sides of an argument, we get better at handing these difficult discussions. When we learn to get away from wanting to be right, to focusing on what the relationship means to us, we can turn an adversary into a friend. These are skills that can be learned, and it will do us a whole world of good to work hard at acquiring them.

As we saw with Jack, leaders are often usually tasked with having these difficult discussions. How we approach them could go a long way to determine the outcome of such discussions. It could be the difference between keeping a valuable team member and scurrying to find a replacement.