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Difficult Conversations   

| March 28, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Over that past two years, the Tuesday Reading has focused twice on difficult conversations, both with others, Managing Difficult Conversations, and in the form of self-talk, Neuroscience – Managing Self-Talk.   
Recently, I reviewed an essay We Have to Talk:  A Step-By-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations, by Judy Ringer, a conflict and communications skills trainer, black belt in Aikido, and founder of Power & Presence Training.  What attracted me to the essay was the word “checklist” in the title.  I particularly like checklists as they most often provide a good roadmap of best practices to guide an individual through a difficult situation. 
Ringer’s checklist provides “action items to think about before going into a difficult conversation, some useful concepts to practice during the conversation, and some tips and suggestions to help you stay focused and flowing in general, including possible conversation openings.”  Key suggestions (a short video and more detail are available in the reference) from the checklist include:
1.  Working on Yourself:  How to prepare for the conversation –

  • What is your purpose in the conversation, what do you want to accomplish?
  • What assumptions are you making about this person’s intentions?
  • What buttons of yours are being pushed?
  • How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it?
  • Who is the other party?  How might he/she be thinking about the situation?
  • What are your needs and fears? How have you contributed to the problem?

2.  Steps to a Successful Outcome –

  • Inquiry – Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity;  pretend you don’t know anything and try to learn as much as possible from your conversation.
  • Acknowledgement – Demonstrate that you’ve heard and understand.  Talk about what you think your conversation partner wants based on the “Inquiry.”  Remember that acknowledgment is not agreement.
  • Advocacy – What can you see from your perspective that has been missed by the other party?
  • Problem Solving – Now that the “data” is out in front of both of you, use brainstorming and continued inquiry to explore options that work for both of you.  Continue to seek the other’s point-of-view as you build a sustainable solution.

Like in anything you do, to become proficient at having difficult conversations you have to practice, practice, and practice even more.  Continued practice will build your skill and the ease you have with the conversations.
There is not a day when we don’t have a difficult conversation with at least one person.  Do yourself a huge favor and develop practices so that you can handle them well.  It will do wonders to strengthen how you are as a leader.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Judy Ringer, We Have to Talk:  A Step-By-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations.
Jim Whitehurst, Create a Culture Where Difficult Conversations Aren’t So Hard, Harvard Business Review, August 2015.
Emma Seppala and Jennifer Stevenson, In a Difficult Conversation, Listen More Than You Talk, Harvard Business Review, February 2017.