Have you ever been in a discussion that stalled when
both parties couldn’t move beyond defending
their own positions?
Difficult communications are a part of everyday life.
They are the ones that give a knot in your stomach.
You dread them but there are times when they are
required – sooner or later. Even putting these
talks off, they come to mind unexpectedly. These
conversations happen at home and at work, with people
you know well and with relative strangers.
This article offers some thoughts on what makes these
communications so difficult and how to smooth the
bumps with the least damage to the parties involved
and their relationships.
Can You Identify?
When Kathy first joined the company, Steve showed
her “the ropes” and how to make
her way around. Kathy considered him a friend,
and they often had lunch together. Recently,
Kathy was promoted to a different department
at a level above him. She notices that Steve
is avoiding her with only a cursory, “How’s
it going?” whenever they see one another.
Jack and Nancy are independent consultants who
partner on projects that Jack markets and Nancy
delivers. Jack recommended Nancy to a colleague
who edits a business publication that printed
an article she wrote. At the end of the article,
Nancy identified her firm, not mentioning Jack’s
company name. While Jack stews about this, feeling
betrayed and disappointed, Nancy wonders why
they aren’t working together.
Both situations demand attention. The question
is how to do so tactfully and honestly, with
the least damage.
Perceptions – and the ‘Truth’
More than any other single factor, perception
leads to difficult communications. Although
different people experience the same situation
differently, they behave as if everyone comes
to a situation with the same view of it. Backgrounds,
individual hopes, preferences and fears all
color how you see events taking place before
your eyes. Furthermore, if you accept Gladwell’s
argument (in “Blink: The Power of Thinking
Without Thinking”), you decide what is
going on within the first two seconds of an
Imbedded in these perceptions are tacit rules
that govern behavior. Everyone operates under
implicit assumptions about the way things “ought” to
be and the way people “should” behave.
Difficulties arise when one person’s rules
bump up against another’s, as they are
At work, for instance, a common conflict about
implicit rules arises around being “on
time.” Some think latecomers are “unprofessional
and disrespectful of others’ time.” People
who see being a few minutes late as OK think
that those bothered by this are “unprofessional
and obsessive about insignificant details.” What
happens when a given project requires two employees
with different views of time to cooperate on
What is the truth? Who is right? The fact of
the matter is there is no single truth, only
each person’s perception.
Perceptions trigger feelings, and the more sensitive
the situation, the more feelings they trigger.
Approaching these communications, first acknowledge
and accept that these feelings exist. Know
that your feelings are legitimate to have,
but you are the one who experiences them. Unique
perceptions, mixed with feelings, assumptions,
rules and thoughts must be untangled before
initiating such a conversation. Sort out where
you’re coming from and why the situation
causes discomfort. Remember that this assessment
is yours and not the “truth.” The
other party most likely has another view of
what happened and sees it as “true.”
Sometimes, raising these feelings can seem like
too much of a risk to take. If so, try saying
something such as, “I am uncomfortable
about what I want to discuss with you.” Somehow
this legitimizes feelings that you think either
do not belong at work or are too risky to express.
If this fits, use it.
The next step is to think about how to approach
the other person. How can you turn this discussion
from one of blame or argument into one of mutual
understanding? Name your feelings – “I
am angry, disappointed, hurt, frustrated” – whatever
you are feeling, first to yourself, then to the
other person. Attach to this the resulting effect
their actions or behavior had on you.
If you face an action or decision that leaves
you wondering how anyone could have done something
so stupid, approach the discussion by saying, “I
am puzzled.” Ask the other person to explain
what prompted him/her to do that, not with, “What
on earth were you thinking when you…?” but
rather, ask, “Help me understand what happened
when you sent Client X this incomplete report?” Then,
wait as long as it takes for the other person
to respond. Let as much “white space” hang
in the air as necessary.
You may not agree with their rationale, but you
will understand their position. You will have
a window into what makes that other person tick.
In the future, this will improve your ability
to communicate and work together. Once you hear
their explanation, you can help them understand
the impact the decision/action had on you.
Kathy decided that Steve was just experiencing
sour grapes, and she would leave things alone.
This worked until she was assigned a project
needing Steve’s input. She decided to invite
him to lunch for old times’ sake and act
as if nothing had happened. Her running partner,
a management consultant and coach, suggested
that if she really needed Steve’s cooperation,
pretending that things were as before would not
work. Instead, the advisor proposed telling Steve
outright what she had noticed and how it “seemed
to her,” then, give him the chance to respond.
At lunch, when Kathy did this, Steve exploded
but she just listened. He felt that she had “climbed
to her position on his back,” and he received
no recognition for what he had done to help.
That was all he wanted – not her new job,
nothing else. She apologized for this oversight,
and they were able to work on the new project
with clear expectations of what each party wanted
Jack called Nancy to have coffee. He said, “I
want to talk with you about the article you wrote.
I thought that you would include my company at
the end, and when you didn’t, I felt betrayed
and disappointed, especially since I sent you
to Paul.” Nancy replied, “I had no
idea what to put there and asked Paul, who said
I shouldn’t include your firm’s name.
I felt badly, but he’s the editor.” Jack,
of course, responds, “I wish I’d
There is no pixie dust to make these unpleasant
situations disappear, or as Stone, Patten and
Heen (in “Difficult Conversations”)
say, “There is no such thing as a diplomatic
hand grenade.” You can, however, have these
difficult conversations in such ways that both
parties emerge with new understanding and an
intact, if not improved, relationship.