When the adrenalin starts flowing in a conversation and one person responds aggressively in the heat of the moment, the odds of a successful conclusion to the issue on that occasion are slim to none.
How many times have you vowed not to lose your cool during a discussion and ended up in a shouting match before you knew what was happening?
People are often sidetracked by secondary interests, such as saving face, proving the other person wrong, wanting revenge or the desire to put someone in their place, according to Paul Godin, a mediator, lawyer, negotiator, trainer, facilitator and alternative dispute resolution system designer with Stitt Feld Handy Group in Toronto.
“Primary challenges in having difficult conversations are identity issues, strong emotions, different perceptions about the facts that led up to a particular conversation (he said/she said), past negative history with one another, perceived opposition to one’s goals, and process challenges,” says Godin.
Identity issues are challenges people feel to their self-image, such as feeling under attack from the other person.
Strong emotions can take over a conversation and often result when one is feeling put down. Godin says that’s when people are likely to say things they may later regret. When strong emotions take over, people are “physically stupider, in a sense,” according to Godin. When the other person reacts with strong emotions of his or her own, the challenge doubles, tempers flare on both sides and any hope of a reasonable, intelligent outcome rapidly decreases.
When people have different perceptions about the facts that led up to the conversation, it’s difficult to move forward.
A history of negative encounters with one another, in which each person views the other as the enemy, is a huge challenge toward resolving a problem.
Perceived opposition to one’s goals is an assumption that the other person is automatically going to say “no” to what we are requesting, leading us to treat them like the enemy from the very beginning.
Process challenges are things that can prevent people from having meaningful exchanges. An example is having a serious discussion over the telephone, where people don’t have the benefit of observing one another’s body language, may interrupt one another or may not be able to hear one another properly. Another example is being under time constraints and trying to fit a conversation requiring some time into a three-minute rushed meeting in the hallway.
If someone corners you and appears blunt or aggressive and you need time to figure out why they are acting that way, Godin suggests taking a break and saying, “This is a conversation I want to have with you. Can you just give me five or 10 minutes to clear my plate?” If that request is made in a sincere and open manner, most people will agree to meeting a few minutes or hours later, giving both parties time to cool down and consider their approaches to a problem.
Godin offers these 10 tools for handling difficult conversations with co-workers or bosses:
Ask open-ended, sincere questions. For example: “I see that you’re upset. Can you tell me what’s bothering you?”
Listen with an open mind until the person is finished talking. Don’t interrupt.
Acknowledge the other person’s concerns, such as apologizing if you did or said something to upset that person.
Paraphrase/summarize: Repeat what you understood the other person to have expressed to you.
Problem solve: Deal with the other person’s concerns or goals, then state your own goals and try to find a solution that meets those goals/concerns for both of you.
Allow the other person to save face, if you can. Look for “elegant exits” to conflicts.
Analyze and prepare in advance for a difficult conversation. What are your goals?
Think about how to start the conversation. Be careful about your choice of words, your tone and your body language.
Know your hot buttons (triggers that may cause you to explode). Realize that everyone is bothered by different things. The other person may not be trying to push your buttons at all. Take a deep breath and don’t react emotionally.
Start with facts, not conclusions. Here’s an example: If a co-worker has been late four times in the past month and you are being held up as a result of his lateness, the wrong approach is to blast your co-worker for being unreliable. A better approach is to describe the fact of the late arrivals, and that the person’s lateness is affectively you negatively, and then try to find a solution to the problem.
Godin says it may take several tries, and different approaches, to successfully resolve a conflict. “The key piece is understanding the ‘why’ (the motivation) behind the other person’s actions.”