Difficult conversations are a normal part of life. No matter what personal or professional subject you discuss, these conversations are going to occur eventually.
Handing difficult conversations successfully is a matter of taking the proper approach. Here is one alternative, devised in a collaboration of the Family Institute of Cambridge and Harvard Law School that you may want to consider.
Let’s assume you have a difficult conversation on the horizon. Perhaps the old friend you hired has become a liability to the company. Or maybe the project you are working on took twice as long as you told the client it would, but you can’t afford not to charge for the extra time.
The Harvard Negotiation Project teaches us that during each difficult conversation, there are actually three conversations happening simultaneously. That is, there are three undercurrents driving the energy behind the conversation.
1. The “What Happened” Conversation
This is the disparity between each parties’ interpretation of what has happened. Who is right? Who is to blame?
2. The Feelings Conversation
Whose feelings are valid? Should they be acknowledged, or peeled off of the conversation? How can that happen? How should you address feelings without walking into a landmine?
3. The Identity Conversation
What does this situation mean to each of us? What judgments are we likely making about each other? How is this affecting self-esteem?
Typical, during the “What Happened” conversation, no matter how we phrase it, we are usually telling the other side that they are to blame. The fact is that there isn’t a right or wrong.
The only certainty is that you and your counterpart have completely conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values. Move away from the need to prove you are right, to understanding the differing perceptions of each side. Shift the focus away from establishing blame and toward an acknowledgment that we can never truly know other peoples’ intentions.
The “Feelings” conversation is taking place at the same time. Regardless of how much you try to check your emotions at the door, there are emotional undercurrents to most difficult conversations. Even more, difficult situations don’t just involvefeelings, they are based on feelings. Sometimes a situation is so sensitive that feelings can’t even be broached.
Typically, you will benefit from knowing how to acknowledge and talk about the feelings associated with the situation.
The “Identity” conversation is often the most subtle and complex. However, it offers leverage in managing anxiety and improving your results in the other two conversations.
This conversation asks “What does this say about me?” Even when you are the one who is delivering the bad news, identity still comes into play. How will you be perceived in the future, both by your counterpart and by those who either observe or are peripherally effected?
Here is a checklist from Difficult Conversations, by The Harvard Negotiation Project.
- Prepare by walking through the three conversations.
- Check your purposes and decide whether to raise the issue at all.
- Don’t start from your version or your counterpart’s version of the situation. Start from the “third story” of the differences between your stories.
- Listen carefully to their story, and then tell yours.
- Problem solve by considering options that meet the most important concerns and interests
A successful outcome of a difficult conversation is realized when the organization wins, regardless of individual wants and needs.