Tactfully Smooth Rough Conversations

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 event.
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 bound to.
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 a deadline?
What is the truth? Who is right? The fact of the matter is there is no single truth, only each person’s perception.

Handling Communications
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 and needed.
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 asked sooner.”
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.




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