Two Steps to Get Your Conversations Right Every Time
‘You know that your work has not been up to our standard. We gave you feedback and a good amount of time to improve, and that hasn’t worked out. I regret that we have to let you go.’
The above exchange is an example of a lose-lose conversation. Because both you and the individual lose, and you weren’t able to turn the situation into a win-win result. Maybe the improvement wasn’t possible? Maybe this was just a bad hire? And, people rarely come to work to do a bad job. To prevent this from happening, I have coached leaders at all levels to avoid this type of conversation by having a win-win conversation earlier. But, bringing up significant issues can be daunting, especially if you want positive outcomes and a lot is at stake.
Addressing a touchy subject is filled with landmines, and you need to recognize the landmines and take action. When you think a stressful talk might go seriously wrong, you need to be prepared. Whether with a colleague, friend, subordinate, or boss “…not dealing with crucial conversations in an effective way can impact your career, your relationships, and most importantly, your health.”[i] These are not the talks that occur spontaneously, in a meeting, or in casual banter or heated exchanges. They are purposeful conversations that raise an issue. Some people avoid these, gloss them over, or react in an aggressive or hostile manner accomplishing nothing. You have to plan to successfully navigate the complexity and sensitivity of the discussion.[ii]
Two Steps to a Win-Win Discussion
Being organized, systematic, and clear are the lynchpins of success. We have all had conversations that didn’t go the way we thought they should. Failure to map your conversation in advance is a recipe for disaster or mediocre results. As you become comfortable and skilled in the two steps, you will be able to do them quickly.
Step One: Define Your Objective
To define your objective for the conversation, you must understand WHY you need to raise this issue and WHAT you want to achieve. The answers to these questions form the foundation for a win-win discussion.
WHY do you need to raise this issue? Some other questions that may help you understand your objectives might be:
Why is this issue difficult to discuss?
What happened that drives you to speak with them?
Is there a pattern to this behavior?
Is there a risk that your trust in the person is deteriorating?
Does failing to address the actions put trust at risk?
If you truly care about your working relationship, prepare carefully. The tone you establish early in the conversation lays the groundwork for a positive experience and a meaningful result.
WHAT is your true intention? Again, you might ask, what do you really want to accomplish? Do you want to:
Improve the relationship?
Just fix the issue?
Achieving any of these outcomes would be positive. But, if you intend to win, get your way, or dominate the other person, the first conversation you need to have is with yourself regarding your motives. Our true intentions will emerge in the conversation, and we owe it to the other person to know how it might impact them before we have our talk.
Step Two: Craft Your Discussion
To construct your discussion requires you to craft clear sentences for each of the following:
- Issue: State the issue or situation in a short, non-judgmental sentence
- Example: Give a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation. If a pattern is developing, make it clear what pattern you see.
- Feel: Describe your emotions about the issue, i.e., worry, concern, frustration, impatience, etc.
- Risks: Clarify what is at stake, what might be lost if the issue isn’t remedied; what might be gained if the issue is fixed
- Share: Identify your own contribution to the issue; what role you play in the issue. “I own this issue!” or “This issue developed because I did not clearly communicate my expectations.” or “I incorrectly assumed that you knew what was needed and that was unfair to you.” This is critical! By acknowledging your ownership of the issue, you avoid the ‘blame game.’ You signal to the other person that you are in this together as colleagues and that this is a win-win conversation; Above all, you want to share in the solution.
- Action: Indicate your wish to resolve the issue and suggest a way that you can participate in helping the person resolve the issue
- Question: ‘What are your thoughts?’ or ‘I’d like to hear your thoughts?’ or ‘How can we work together to resolve this?’
I have coached leaders at all levels to use this method. Their conversations were up or down the chain of command as well as laterally with peers. With practice and success, they streamlined the preparation to just a few minutes. As they mastered the technique, they arranged the statements to refine a discussion that fit their personalities and styles. With experience, they used the technique quickly and effectively for a wide array of conversations.
A Real Example
Early in my career, I had a problem; there was a conversation that I put off having that was causing me some anxiety. Not dealing with the issue was causing me to lose trust in my colleague. Consequently, I was more abrupt with him. I wanted to fix this problem and have the conversation, but where to start.
My team was responsible for preparing client presentations and reports—the quality of these documents determined how our client perceived our worth. We wanted the presentations for sales meetings and the reports to summarize our team’s work for our clients. The documents had to be clear, concise, and visually appealing. Most importantly, they needed to be accurate, detailed, and timely. Failure to meet any of these objectives meant that future contracts or continuation of current work could be jeopardized.
The lead person on my team was bright and ambitious, and he expected to be promoted soon. He wanted to be responsible for big projects. Most of all, he wanted to be recognized as a STAR by our firm and the clients. Unfortunately, the quality of his work flew in the face of his ambitious goals. His writing was sprinkled with misspellings, missing words, ineffective punctuating, and on his PowerPoint presentations, the graphics were simplistic, sloppy, and sometimes childish.
My Initial Attempts Failed
In my attempts to discuss this with him, I asked him to revise and improve his work. In each case, he got defensive and asked me how I might make changes. That led me to take back control of documents that were time-sensitive and do the edits myself. This required a fair bit of work, and I faced hours of edits, corrections, and additions. I reached a boiling point. At first, I avoided having a frank conversation because I didn’t want to demotivate him. Doing it myself was easier. At the same time, I knew that this was ineffective for me as well as detrimental to his ambitions to move up. A change was needed, and I had options.
I could formally reprimand him or fire him. He could be taken off my team. He could ‘get with the program’ or suffer the consequences. I could continue to clean up after him. I could have said or done a number of things if I just wanted to do something regardless of the consequences or impact. But I believed that if my team was failing, I was failing as a leader. I had to invest my time and energy to make my team more successful. I, then, learned this simple technique that would become a lifesaver.
How I Coached Myself
Step 1: I developed my objective answering, WHY, and What to establish my focus for the talk.
Why? The work was not meeting quality standards and was late.
What? I wanted my team member to succeed. My true intention was to help my team member improve their skills, gain added confidence, and reduce the burden of excessive editing, thus allowing me to leverage my time.
Step 2: I crafted the script for my discussion. I test drove the script with a colleague to get feedback from someone who had no ‘skin in the game’ and could give me insights on how the conversation felt on the receiving end. If you can look at the situation from the opposite perspective, you can test the impact that your words will have and help you prepare better.
The script wasn’t long, and I felt better just speaking to anyone (an interesting result and another powerful reminder of the impact that coaching and feedback can have). I was ready, and the feeling of having a weight removed from my shoulders gave me the confidence to address the issue in a constructive manner. Having reviewed the script, I rehearsed once more and planned a time to speak with my team member.
The Actual Discussion
After some casual talk (and several attempts by my gremlins to keep me from saying anything), I had the conversation I had practiced stringing my statements into one coherent paragraph.
“Do you mind if I give you some feedback? I want to talk to you about your level of ownership of your work products. For instance, the amount of clean-up work that I did to get your proposal for the general corporation to a world-class level. I feel disappointed and taken advantage of when your quality does not meet my expectations. You want to be recognized and rewarded and what is at stake is your progression to the next level. I may have contributed to this by jumping in and cleaning up your proposals instead of helping you to be able to do the work. What I would like is that you edit your own work and give yourself time to bring it up to world-class. What are your thoughts?”
Our conversation was open, frank, and constructive. He agreed that he needed help with both time management and the editing process in general. He had been reluctant to admit that he wasn’t totally clear on how to go about editing. I agreed to help, and we left the talk confident that we would be successful together. My behavior towards him changed, and with some considerable effort on both our parts, he performed consistently at a ‘world-class’ level. I had assumed that he knew as much about the process as I. I was wrong, and this was the root of the issue. A win-win approach averted a discussion that could have become hurtful or confrontational. I learned a valuable lesson that helped me be more effective. Careful preparation using these two simple steps was a worthwhile investment in our working relationship.
Having a simple tool at your fingertips to communicate more effectively in difficult situations can enhance your confidence and leadership skills regardless of where you fit on the organization chart. As participants in any workplace, we often need to deliver difficult news, address an issue, or raise a complaint or criticism. Our objective is to have effective conversations that leave both parties whole and add more trust to the relationship. Whether a coach, a co-worker, friend, or a family member, these two steps will help you raise an issue in a positive, non-threatening, non-judgmental, win-win manner without giving upon them.
“Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; Chapter 1: What’s a Crucial Conversation? And Who Cares? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002) p16
[ii] IECL, Institute for Executive Coaching and Leadership, Sydney, Australia
© Paul McBlaine, 2021
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