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Managing Difficult Conversations

| May 12, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading focuses on managing difficult conversations.  Most likely each of us will have at least one difficult conversation today.  We’ve all had difficult conversations that have gone badly and we instinctly fear that the one on the horizon will do so as well.  Today’s reading is actually a video produced by Fred Kofman.  He is Professor of Leadership at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala City, Guatemala and author of the book Conscious Business.  [A Discussion Guide associated with the video may be found here.]
In the video, Prof. Kofman argues that being confident in having a difficult conversation comes from knowledge that you can manage the conversation’s process.  The key objective is to keep the conversation from spiraling into some form of you and your conversation partner repeating “I’m right and you’re wrong” back and forth to each other.  He notes that to avoid this you need to begin preparing for the conversation by asking what your real goal for the conversation is, by sketching out that goal and your arguments, and by practicing your conversation.
Kofman suggests that you should want three things from the conversation. He labels these:
I  –     I feel good about how the conversation progressed and concluded, and was able to express my position and values with integrity.
WE  –  We related to each other openly, respectfully, and kindly.
IT  –   We were able to reach a shared goal and a timeline for going forward.
Kofman recommends a seven step process for the actual conversation:

  1. Listen  –  no interruptions, pay attention, be quiet.  Your goal is to understand where your conversation partner is coming from.
  2. Ask  –  seek clarification when you don’t understand.  This is not the time to argue your position.
  3. Summarize  –  let the other individual know that you heard what was said.  Summarize what you heard and ask if you have understood correctly.
  4. Validate  –  even though you think that what the other person has said is crazy, it isn’t crazy to him or her.  Validate that given how she sees the situation, her point of view is reasonable even if you see the situation differently.
  5. Express  –  express what you think and feel.  There is safety in using the word “I.”  When you use “I” you are not imposing your view on the other person.  It’s what you see and feel.
  6. Negotiate  –  resolve the issue together.  Discuss the different points of view and together come to a path forward.
  7. Commit  –  put what the two of you have agreed to and the timeline you will adhere to in completing each of the agreed upon actions into writing.  Once it’s on paper, all parties sign the agreement.

I think that Professor Kofman’s process for managing difficult conversations is a very good tool to have in your toolkit.  On a personal level, I wish that I had had this tool in my toolkit when I was CIO.  There are some conversations that would have gone much better were that the case.
I urge you to practice using this approach so that it can become a regular habit.  I believe it will serve you well.
Have a great week.   .   .   .    jim