Here’s a Way for Difficult Conversations to Be Less Difficult

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Feb 22, 2017

If you’re like most people, you find yourself avoiding difficult conversations because you fear triggering a negative response and making the situation worse. Based on past experiences, you figure “Better not to bring it up and just suck it up.”

What happens?

You feel unsettled, and perhaps angry and frustrated.

Also, if the issue is getting in the way of you and the other person working well together, your effectiveness suffers, as does your employer.

Here’s an alternative: Use the “Declaration/Invitation Format” to bring up the issue in a way that fosters an open, non-defensive crucial conversation.

Getting good at the Declaration/Invitation can be a game-changer. The better you are at starting a constructive conversation in such a way that it invites a non-defensive, open-minded response, the more effective you will be with all of your difficult discussions.

In my seminars, I describe the “How you start off the conversation”  as one of the two make or break “Moments of Truth” when engaging people in difficult conversations because — if done poorly — starting off poorly can totally torpedo any chance of the conversation ending well.

Therefore, it’s worth getting good at developing your skill at starting important conversations off well.

By the way, the other “Make or Break Moment of Truth” when engaging people in difficult conversations is what you do before the conversation, and will be addressed in a future article.

The Declaration

In the “Declaration step” you declare what you want to discuss. The Declaration provides a context for your remarks, so they don’t appear to come out of the blue (e.g. “Freida, do you ever wonder what people think about you?”). You obviously want to avoid catching a person off guard, as that typically triggers defensiveness.

Effective declarations:

  1. Communicate a message that is clear, concise, and concrete — and therefore easily understood.
  2. Provide enough context so the person knows where you’re coming from, but not a long story.
  3. Are communicated with the least amount of intensity needed to get the point across. If the “light touch” doesn’t work, you can always dial up the intensity.
  4. Are spoken in a welcoming—or at least neutral—tone of voice.
  5. State your “truth” — your experience, your need, your wanting to understand something, your perception — without blame or judgment.
  6. Avoid using:
    • “Should” and “shouldn’t”
    • “You” statements
    • Always” and “never”
    • Inflammatory words or phrases — e.g. “It seems like it would be a no-brainer that…” or “Why did you throw me under the bus?” or “Duh!”

Examples of declaration:

  1. “I wanted to talk with you about what happened in yesterday’s meeting, more specifically….”
  2. “I was looking at our customer satisfaction scores and noticed that we’re not close to our goal of 95% and wanted to get your take on what we need to do to turn that around.”
  3. “I went to a seminar on how to get better results through better conversations, and one of the things the instructor asked us was to think of a conversation we would like to get better at. I thought about conversations where I’ve tried to give feedback in a way I thought was constructive, but based on your response clearly I wasn’t doing that. So I wanted to see if we could talk about how we could have those conversations in a way that worked better.”

The Invitation

After you “declare” what it is you want to talk about, you then “invite” the person into a dialogue. The more inviting your invitation, the more receptive the person will be and less likely to get defensive.

Effective Invitations:

  1. Come across as open and inviting, so the person wants to engage in a conversation.
  2. Communicate, “I want you to speak honestly and openly with me, and it’s safe to do so.”
  3. Either directly or indirectly invite them to offer one or more of the following:
    • Their point of view
    • Their reaction to what you said
    • An answer to your question
    • To help you understand something

Examples of Invitations:

  1. “So, I was wondering what you thought about that.”
  2. “Do you know what I mean?”
  3. “What are your thoughts about that?”
  4. “What do you think we should do about that?”
  5. “I’d like to get your take on this.”
  6. “Can you see where I’m coming from, or not really?”

While difficult discussions are by definition difficult, by applying these principles they will become much less difficult for you as you become more skilled. As your skills grow, you will also find yourself feeling less anxiety and more confidence, because you will feel more justified optimism that the conversation will go well.

How to prepare

Here’s an excerpt from my Let’s Talk for a Change seminar workbook to help you apply what you just read.

  1. Pick a conversation you want to have that you think will be challenging.
  2. Write down your Declaration/Invitation.
  3. Now, using the following questions, revise your message, if necessary, to make it more inviting:

    • If you are requesting some change, are you describing what you want clearly, giving examples if necessary?
    • Do you have any inflammatory language, sarcasm, digs, melodrama, or exaggerations that need to be removed?
    • If you are stating your perspective, are you stating it as a perspective, not as an absolute truth?
    • Does your message communicate goodwill and a willingness to discuss rather than communicate judgment, attack, or blame?
    • Does your message contain any psychoanalyzing or mind-reading? If so, remove these.
    • Does your message communicate a sincere desire to hear the other person’s point of view?
  4. Ask someone you respect to give you feedback :

    • Ask them if they were that person and you brought it up this way, how they would feel and react.
    • Ask them if you need to dial down the intensity (or up, which is less likely).
    • Ask them to look at the lists in this article and whether your Declaration/Invitation embodies the qualities described.
  5. Tweak your Declaration/Invitation based on the feedback and continue the process until you get a “thumbs up.”
  6. Have the conversation. If it goes well, note what worked and how you might improve on it. If it doesn’t go well, take notes right after the conversation, and get with a coach or wise friend to debrief and see what you can learn for future challenging conversations.