HOW TO HANDLE
HOW A SIMPLE CONVERSATION CAN GO BAD…
Throughout any given day, each of us can have hundreds of conversations. Some are trivial,
other critical. Some may last only a minute or two, others might go on for hours. But regardless
of the subject matter or length, all interpersonal communications run the risk of getting derailed
and turning into a difficult, aggravating, emotional and destructive interaction. When you are
caught in the middle of such an encounter, the high level of anxiety and emotion can cloud your
ability to see that there is an underlying structure common to all challenging communications that
drives the interaction into trouble.
Why a conversation goes off track
Inside of a challenging conversation, there are three different factors that contribute to poor
1. Arguing about the “facts”
2. Ignoring emotions
3. Concern about personal & professional impact
JUST THE FACTS…OR JUST ASSUMPTIONS?
At its core, every challenging conversation is an argument about the facts. Who said what? Who
is right? What is fair? Who is to blame? What did they mean by that? Why did they do that?
What were they thinking?
All of these issues can be broken down into three main categories:
And in each of these areas, we all make some very serious and debilitating assumptions.
CONFLICT ON THE FACTS = THE “TRUTH” ASSUMPTIONS
I am right
As we fight valiantly to defend our position and support our point of view, we each make a basic
assumption on which our entire argument is founded: I am right and you are wrong!
# I am right that you should have done it the way I told you to.
# I am right that the client would not be happy.
# I am right that you are too touchy and emotional.
# I am right that you don’t deserve a promotion.
This very common assumption actually creates the bulk of our grief and suffering. The reason?
You are not right! But how can that be? Surely I must be right sometimes? Well yes and no.
You are right to you – but not necessarily to anyone else.
Challenging communications are almost never about getting the facts “right.” They are about
proving that you are right. The “truth” is that every person has a completely different view of the
world and what things mean to them. We each bring a complex system of personal values,
beliefs, interpretations and attitudes to every situation. We can watch the same event – and
have completely different views as to the “facts” of what happened. Neither party is right or
wrong – just different.
To foster excellent communication we must learn to change our “I am right” assumption to a
more open-minded and flexible stance. To change from telling to asking. From asserting to
exploring. From demanding to understanding.
Admitting that we are not always right is one of the most important steps to
becoming a more skilled communicator.
They are the problem
It is amazing, but in almost every case, people give themselves the benefit of the doubt and
place the focus of the difficulties squarely on the other person.
Arrogant Foolish Stupid
Manipulative Naïve Unaware
Controlling Emotional Irrational
You assume that they are the problem, and you are just fine. But the truth is, we can all act
irrationally or controlling from time to time. Perhaps this was one of your times?
We live in the same world
It seems quite reasonable to assume that other people live in the same world you do — but they
don’t! Each of us lives in a completely unique and often times very different world. We create
the world we live in by the way we view it and explain it to ourselves. Our own little world is
colored by our life experiences, our family, beliefs, rules, values, hopes and fears, personality,
mood, goals and much, much more.
Each of us gathers information through our senses: sight / sound / touch / smell / taste. Yet no
two people have access to the exact same input. Numerous research studies have proven that if
several people witness the same event – at the same time — all of them will recall the situation
slightly (or significantly) different. Why?
$ Selective Attention and the Reticular Activating System
We see different things because we pay attention to different things. Two people go on a car
ride together. Person one remembers all the beautiful flowers on the side of the highway.
Person two remembers all of the songs they listened to on the radio. You remember what is
important to you — sometimes the way you want to remember it.
$ How We Interpret the Data
After we have selectively gathered all of this information we make very biased decisions about
what it all means to us. Once again, based on our values, beliefs, attitudes and convictions we
create a unique meaning out of the chaos of information. We come to our own conclusions
about what really happened and how we feel about it and believe that everybody else does, or
should, see it that way too.
Apply this same idea to the flow of information throughout an organization and you begin to get
an idea of the wide disparity of understanding that can occur. That is why we often get into
challenging communications on the basis of arguing about the “facts.” We end up trying to tell
someone else how they should see the world, how they need to change their beliefs and views to
match our view.
HOW DO WE FIX THE “TRUTH” ASSUMPTIONS?
1. Admit that you are not always right.
- yes, you could actually be wrong. As a matter of fact, you probably are.
2. Realize that they are not always the problem.
- you might be acting arrogant or foolish. Don’t assume they are the culprit.
3. Determine if you both have the same information.
- different information leads to different conclusions. Get everyone up to speed.
4. Try to become more aware of your “world.”
- work hard to uncover your own biases. What stories do you tell to create your world?
5. Become curious about their “world.”
- seek first to understand, before being understood. Why do they think the way they do?
I KNOW WHY YOU DID THAT
The next major assumption is that I know why you are behaving the way you are. I can tell by
the way you looked at me, or what you said, or how you are acting – exactly what you are
I assume from your “actions” that I clearly understand your “intentions.”
# You said that to hurt my feelings.
# You were trying to embarrass me.
# You are trying to get me fired.
# You think I deserve a promotion and want me to take on more responsibility.
But the “truth” is… intentions are invisible, we cannot know someone else’s intentions unless we
ask them. It can create a great deal of anger, emotion and anxiety when we pretend that we
know what a person’s intentions are. Why? Intentions are very complex:
♦ People sometimes act with good intentions and yet get a bad result.
♦ People sometimes act with no intention at all toward you.
♦ People sometimes act with mixed intentions, not meaning to hurt you or help you.
♦ People do sometimes act from bad intentions and are trying to hurt you.
You can’t assume anything about what is motivating a person to act, to do so only leads you into
In the middle of an important meeting with several senior managers, one of your co-workers
interrupts you to correct some figures you have just quoted.
What might you assume?
SOME UNINTENTIONAL ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT INTENTIONS
$ We assume we are skilled mind readers
We think we really understand other people, we have them pegged. We can discern from their
actions precisely what they were thinking, what was motivating them and what intended outcome
they were shooting for. We make up all kinds of complex stories and theories to explain the
reasons for their behavior.
Susan really wants to move to the client services division; that is why she is always trying to get
involved on our project.
Dave is mad about something at home, probably upset with his son, so he is trying to take it out
on us. It makes him feel powerful at work to yell at us because he does not have any power at
$ We assume intentions by the impact their actions have on us
• I feel bullied – she intended to threaten me.
• I feel left out – they intended to exclude me.
• I feel angry – he intended to get me excited and worked up.
Because our feelings are so strong, we absolutely convince ourselves that the other person must
have intended to make us feel this way. They did it on purpose. They planned it out. They
intended to hurt us.
$ We assume the worst
It is rare that we are able to catch ourselves and say, “I don’t think he really meant that, he must
have misspoken. He probably wasn’t thinking clearly. I know he respects me and would never
intentionally do anything to try to make me look bad in front of the boss.”
Unfortunately, we more often think, “That idiot! I can’t believe he would do that. He must be
trying to get my job. After all I have done to help him in this company, it shocks me that he
would come after me like that.”
Two key points:
A.) Sometimes people do have bad intentions. They are trying to hurt you. But most often that
is not the case. Take time to explore and figure out the truth.
B.) Be especially careful in forms of communication that are already challenging by the nature of
how they are delivered. Voicemail, e-mail and memos are notorious for being completely
A huge mistake… we assume bad intentions = bad person
Probably the biggest pitfall in the “intentions assumption” is the almost effortless leap we make
from thinking the other person had bad intentions to thinking they are a bad person. We make
an unfounded character judgments based on our assumptions that now impacts the way we view
this person in every area of their life.
You feel like your boss is micro-managing you and soon find yourself calling her a “manipulative
control freak.” You begin to avoid her, say less than kind things about her and don’t put forth
100 percent effort to support her. The more you watch her; the more you start to notice things
that seem to agree with your assessment of her as a bad person. Pretty soon you cannot stand
to work for her.
Notice that your judgment is based on how you felt and assumptions of what you thought she
intended. Once you started to create a story in your head, your mind began to run with it.
Feelings and assumptions are not a sound basis for determining someone’s character.
How NOT to fix the intentions assumptions
You can’t take it anymore. A team member working on an important project with you is late for
the fifth meeting in a row. You decided that you will confront the issue and uncover the “real”
intentions behind his aggravating behavior. You go to Scott’s desk and say:
“Why is it you feel like you can show up for meetings whenever you want, while the rest of us all
get there on time?”
You think you are being brave. You are tackling a difficult subject in a frank and straightforward
way. You are trying to show Scott that he has offended you and the rest of the team and get
him to show up at meetings on time in the future. You are trying to be honest in sharing your
frustration and, who knows, maybe you’ll even get an apology.
What you get instead is an argument. Scott goes on the defensive and attacks back.
“I don’t exactly see you in here at 8:30 sharp every morning, and lunch is supposed to be an
hour, not the leisurely hour and twenty minutes you usually take.”
Battle lines are drawn, and it is going to get ugly. But would you expect anything different?
From Scott’s point of view, you are attacking him and his character. You are accusing him of not
being a team player. You are questioning his loyalty. You are threatening his job security. Is it
any wonder he is so defensive and hostile?
Let’s look at the proper way to handle this situation...
THREE KEY QUESTIONS
1. What really happened?
Clear your mind. Take a deep breath and think carefully. What did the other person really say or
do? Not what you imagined or inferred, but what really happened.
2. How did it make you feel?
Once again, think it through clearly. Get rid of the drama and focus on what the real impact of
their words and actions were on you. Did it hurt you? Frustrate you? Anger you? Confuse you?
3. Make a “guess” about their intentions
Based on what they really said or did, and how it actually made you feel — try to infer what you
believe the other person was intending. Make an assumption about their intentions, but
remember, it is only a guess.
GO FROM ACCUSATIONS – TO “I” STATEMENTS
When you accuse people they get defensive. They fight back. They argue and deny. Why?
Because you are “telling” them how they were thinking, why they acted a certain way, what their
intentions were. This will never work.
Instead, talk to them about something you do know about - how you were feeling, what you
were thinking and what you thought it might mean. To accomplish this, we use one of the most
powerful communications tools available...the “I” statement.
“Scott, when you come in late to our team meetings, it makes me feel frustrated because it has a
serious impact on keeping the agenda on track. I feel like you don’t want to be in the meetings,
and that confuses me because I know you are excited about the project. Could you help me
understand what has been keeping you from making it on time?”
Now you may still get some defensiveness, but at least you have not assumed anything. You
have shared your feelings, the impact of Scott’s behavior on you and the team and your
confusion about his seemingly contradictory behavior. A much better start toward a constructive
Diplomatic Gentle Firm
Reflection “I” -Statements Disagreement Confrontation Confrontation
Demand for Action
In this stage you make a sincere effort to truly understand the other person’s feelings, thoughts
and needs. You build trust and rapport by focusing on active listening and showing concern.
You ask questions, stay attentive, summarize and paraphrase to demonstrate your understanding
of facts and reflect what the person is expressing to show empathy.
“I understand that you feel/think _______________ because ____________.”
“I can see that you are upset and you feel like there is a lot of pressure on you. You mentioned
that you are working on eight different projects, including the annual budget. That is very
challenging. I can understand that you feel stressed.”
! “I”- statements
Here you try to build understanding by asserting your own needs and feelings and discussing
your thoughts and objectives in a nonjudgmental way. You want the other person to more
clearly understand why you are acting and feeling the way you are.
“I feel __________ when you ____________.”
“I feel uncomfortable and uneasy when you throw files down on my desk and raise your voice.”
! Diplomatic Disagreement
Your goal is to reach understanding in a gentle, tactful manner. You want the other person to
understand your reasoning, and you want to understand theirs. The goal here is to disagree
agreeably, to preserve that relationship in the face of conflict. The format includes both
reflection and I-statements.
“You feel/think ___________. I appreciate your position and understand that _________.
I feel / think that _____________ and believe we might want to ____________.”
“I appreciate your position and realize you feel it will improve productivity. I believe we should
wait until we get the new computers and make sure the software is compatible.”
! Gentle Confrontation
Now you will attempt to both build a strong relationship and cause a change in behavior at the
same time. You’ll want to suggest the change in a non-threatening, tactful, even tentative
manner, while showing concern and understanding.
The process is a combination of:
# Validation of importance / worth
# Indication of consequences
“You think/feel ____________. I appreciate your position and understand that ____________.
I feel ___________ because ___________. If this continues it will cause __________.”
“I know you think the Tampa project is a waste of time. I understand your feelings and
appreciate that it may not seem like a top priority to you. Tom, you are one of the key people on
our team, however, I feel frustrated when you agree to deadlines on that project and then turn
work in days late. I am trying to manage all of our projects well, and this situation is causing me
a lot of stress and extra work. If you continue to delay the project, it may mean that we don’t
meet our quarterly goals and we will all lose our chance for a bonus.”
! Firm Confrontation
At this stage, change in behavior is your primary objective. You still want to maintain the
relationship and keep the individual motivated but you are also seeking a firm resolution to an
“I would appreciate it in the future if you would __________.”
“ This cannot continue. In the future please _____________.”
** Same as Gentle Confrontation above, plus:
“This cannot continue. In the future, I would appreciate it if you would please honor the
deadlines you commit to. It is very important to all of us.”
“IT’S YOUR FAULT” - STOP THE BLAME GAME
The next major issue to address is one of the most debilitating in both personal and business
relationships. Focusing all of the energy, effort and emotion into figuring out who to blame.
Playing the blame game causes a number of problems:
# It hurts people’s feelings
# It attacks their sense of worth
# It creates fear and anxiety
# It destroys motivation and risk taking
# It destroys relationships
# It causes pain and anger
Most importantly, focusing on blame actually inhibits our ability to figure out
what really caused the problem and how to correct it and make sure it will not
happen in the future!
When we blame someone we are really saying:
“There is a big problem and we figured out that out of all the people here...you caused it. It is
your fault. You must be incompetent or just not care to have made this mistake. You should feel
terrible and you should be punished.”
We may not say it in exactly those words – but that is often how it is received.
Stop blaming – start looking for contribution
Our real goal is positive relationships, good teamwork and effective workflow – not blame. In
almost every instance, there is not a single person who is completely to blame for a mishap. It is
most often a system of cause and effect of mutual contribution.
Whenever you feel the urge to start blaming, honestly ask yourself the following questions:
• What has really happened here, what is the actual situation?
• Who was involved?
• What did I do or not do to contribute to the problem?
• What did the other person do or not do that helped cause the problem?
• How did other people contribute to the problem?
• How can we change the situation to make sure it does not occur again in the future?
• What must I do to foster and support that change?
Blame: a contribution example
You have been expecting a call from a very important new prospective client. This person could
become one of your best customers. She is very affluent and very demanding. She calls at 10
AM on Tuesday morning and speaks to your assistant. She declines to leave a voicemail but does
ask that you please return her call “as soon as it is convenient.” You get the message on your e-
mail Thursday afternoon and return the call immediately only to learn that she has left that
morning for a two-week vacation. There is a good chance that your delay in getting back to her
will cost you the opportunity to get her as a client. You are livid and you head for your
assistant’s desk to let him know it.
Stop – let’s take just a moment to go through some questions:
What really happened? My assistant failed to give me a very important phone message in a
Did he even know this was an important person?
Had he ever been told that she is especially high maintenance?
Have I given him clear instructions about how to deliver messages to me if someone won’t leave
Why didn’t he just put a note on my desk or catch me in my office and tell me?
I was out of the office most of the day Wednesday, so he could not have told me in person.
I was really rushed and in a bad mood the last few days.
I did not check my e-mail all day on Wednesday, and not until after lunch Thursday.
Try to think of a recent event where you were caught in a bad situation and felt like it was totally
the other person’s fault. Ask yourself a few questions and see how you might have contributed...
The key to Success: take accountability for your contribution first
The surest way to prove that you are focused on solutions, not blame, is to start the conversation
off by taking full responsibility for what you might have done to contribute to the problem. This
clearly signals that you are willing to admit your contribution and are asking the other person to
do the same.
$ Get the “facts” straight
To make sure you are both working with the same set of facts, take a little time to share your
interpretation of the situation, what you feel went wrong and the impact it has had on you. Then
ask the other person to do the same.
$ Gain agreement on contribution
After you have discussed the facts and feelings of the situation, come to an agreement that it
was a serious problem and that each of you contributed in some way to bringing it about.
Granted, one party may end up with the lion’s share of the responsibility for the occurrence but
now you have both agreed how it happened and who caused it.
$ Decide what you will do differently
Now that you have agreed on the problem and who caused it, it is time to agree on a solution
and who will be responsible for implementing it. What will each of you do in the future to make
sure this does not happen again? What specific steps will you take? What procedures or
processes will be put into place? How will you avoid similar problems?
What if they will not take responsibility for their part?
You may be concerned that a co-worker will be more than happy to agree with your contribution,
but then be reluctant to take any responsibility for their actions. Yes, this can happen. When it
does, make it clear that:
• It is not okay to focus only on my contribution
• I am trying to be fair and look at both sides
• I need you to try to look at both sides too
• What is happening that makes it difficult for you to look at yourself?
• Is there anyone else you feel also contributed?
• Do you really feel that I am completely to blame?
IGNORING EMOTIONS – I DON’T FEEL LIKE TALKING ABOUT MY FEELINGS
Challenging communications are not just about facts, intentions and blame, they are also in very
large part about emotions.
Few people are comfortable dealing with emotional subjects, especially in the workplace. We
have been taught to keep our feelings to ourselves and focus on the “work.” Allowing emotions
to enter into a communication causes anxiety, fear, confusion and complexity. We try very hard
to “stick to the facts” (which we have just learned is not as easy as it sounds), stay rational and
The problem is, that emotions cannot be separated from emotional subjects. The reality is that
difficult communications are difficult because... they are based on emotions. Therefore, emotions
must be recognized, validated and dealt with if any hope of clear and effective communication is
to be expected.
When sharing becomes slamming
Someone in the office does something to really upset you. You are sitting there seething, getting
more angry by the second. The feelings and emotions inside of you are boiling out of control.
Then, just as you are about to tell them how you feel, an amazing process takes place. Your
emotions about the situation are magically transformed into an outright character assassination
against the other person.
“You are selfish and arrogant. I cannot believe you would have the nerve to treat me and the
rest of the team this way. You have no idea how to act professionally and you are going to make
us ruin this project.”
Rather than sharing your thoughts, feeling and emotions, you provoke an argument and take
great strides toward totally destroying your relationship with the other person. Yet, this is how
many people deal with their emotions. They don’t focus on how they feel, instead they attack
the actions, values and beliefs of the other person.
You can’t hide your emotions
As hard as you may try, when you have strong feelings and emotions, people can easily detect
# Tone of voice
# Facial expressions
# Body language
# Eye contact
# Sarcastic, aggressive, impatient, defensive or ambivalent behaviors
BLOCKING EMOTIONS BEGS FOR TROUBLE
Taking “response-ability” for your emotions
For some people it isn’t so much that they don’t want to deal with emotions, but that they can’t
seem to deal without them. They lose their temper and fly off the handle at the slightest
provocation. They cry and get depressed at minor irritations. They would prefer to act
professional, calm and composed, but they just can’t seem to get control.
WORKSHOP – The Gap
Emotional ear muffs
When you are very upset, it is very difficult to listen. There is a voice inside your head talking to
you loudly about how you feel, what emotions you are experiencing, how angry, scared, or hurt
you are. As long as you don’t deal with these overwhelming emotions, they will continue to
significantly inhibit your ability to listen, focus and communicate. You must find a way to share
how you are feeling and clear your mind.
Emotions can hurt you
When you have strong feelings and do not share them, it can take a savage toll on your self-
esteem and self-image. You start to feel like you are not a strong person, that you can’t stick up
for yourself. You feel like people are taking advantage of you and you are helpless to stop them.
Left unresolved, these feeling can cause great emotional pain.
There is hope
There are professional and effective ways to deal with the problem of emotions in
communication. When skillfully done, it is almost always helpful to address emotions in a
purposeful and positive way. Here is the three step process:
1. Explore your emotions – what are you really feeling?
2. Negotiate with your emotions – decide just how much you want to share.
3. Share just your real emotions – not assumptions, judgments or accusations.
Step 1: Find the feelings
Good people do have bad feelings from time to time, it is only natural and normal. But feelings
and emotions are VERY complex. We sometimes rush to give a simple label to what is actually a
twisted, multi-layered tangle of differing emotions.
Your boss keeps hounding you to: “Do a good job on that report, it is really important.”
At first blush you might simply say that his constant nagging is starting to get you angry. But a
closer look at the emotional mix would uncover:
# You are perturbed with his micro-managing
# You resent the implication that you wouldn’t do a good job
# You’re terrified he might be right – you aren’t talented enough to do a good job
# You are concerned that the report is falling behind schedule
# You are nervous about presenting it to senior management
Many times we will hide behind a single strong emotion. We get angry at the boss for nagging
but don’t deal with the fear that we might not be able to deliver the quality report we think he
expects. Until you have a firm handle on ALL the emotions and feelings you are experiencing, it
will be impossible to deal with them appropriately.
Step 2: Decide which feelings are valid and worthy of expression
You don’t need to discuss every single emotion you are feeling:
• Some of your emotions are trivial and not worth the time and effort to share.
• Some of your emotions are “imagined”.
• Some of your emotions are based on false assumptions about the other person’s intentions.
• Some of your emotions are from other problems.
Carefully examine all of your emotions and feelings and decide which ones are truly valid for the
situation and merit discussion. Then, spend a little time to look closely at the ones you have
selected and make an honest effort to understand why you feel that way, who contributed to it
and what sort of resolution you might hope for.
Step 3: Share your emotions – CAREFULLY
Once you have identified your feelings and decided which ones are strong enough and important
enough that you want to share them, the next step is deciding how to professionally express
them in a positive and productive way.
You can express emotions well without becoming emotional
You can become extremely emotional without expressing much of anything
To make sure you are effective and focused when sharing emotions and feeling, here are some
simple guidelines to help you:
♦ If emotions are part of the issue – they should be expressed
♦ You are entitled to have emotions – it is only human
♦ Your emotions don’t have to be rational to be expressed
♦ The other party is entitled to have emotions
♦ Focus on the problem – not the person
♦ Use “I” statements
♦ Admit that you are uncomfortable
♦ Express all of your relevant emotions
♦ Do not judge, attribute, assume or blame
♦ Make sure both parties have ample opportunity to share their feelings and emotions
♦ Stay calm, relaxed and under control
♦ Keep reaffirming a desire to work together
♦ Be sure to acknowledge and validate the other person’s emotions
♦ Use active listening, reflection, summary and paraphrasing to demonstrate understanding
Once you have both had an opportunity to share and explore your feelings, you will be able to
clearly focus on the problem and possible solutions, rather than be blinded by emotions.
In addition to the confusion and difficulty of arguing about the facts, assuming intentions,
assigning blame and getting emotional – we also have to contend with the ongoing internal
dialogue in all challenging communications that focuses on the personal impact of the situation
on all the individuals involved. Throughout a challenging communication, each person is asking
themselves questions like:
$ How will this make me look in front of the others?
$ Am I competent?
$ Does this mean I am not good enough to be on the project?
$ Is this about the client, or is this about me?
$ Am I a good person?
$ How can I let them treat me like this? I must be a fool.
$ I am too good for this place, am I wasting my time here?
$ Am I worthy of respect / trust / friendship / love?
Self doubt. Questions about self-image and self-esteem. Implications about efficacy and
potential. All these issues race through a person’s mind during challenging communications and
create a great deal of “noise” making it hard to concentrate on the subject at hand and maintain
good communication skills. It is important to recognize that a conversation is about much more
than what is being discussed – it is also about who is talking and the personal and professional
impact that conversation will have on them.
HOW WE MAKE IT WORSE
It is bad enough that we are struggling with our own sense of competence and worth, but then
we do something to ourselves that makes it significantly worse. We adopt an “all-or-nothing”
belief that makes us feel totally helpless and unmotivated.
% I mess up everything.
% I will never be able to figure this out.
% I am such an idiot, I can’t get anything right.
% Every time I have done this, I always make a mistake.
% Take the time to recall an instance when you did NOT make a mistake.
% Make a quick mental check of all of the things you CAN do very well.
% Get the training, information and help you need to improve and excel.
DON’T MAKE IT SO PERSONAL
Nobody is ever anything all the time, and you are not a bad person just because you made an
error. Here are several steps to help you keep things in perspective during a challenging
communication. (Remember: the other person is also struggling with these same issues).
You will fail
Despite your best intentions, you will make mistakes. The goal is to keep them to a minimum or
not repeat the same one time and time again. But mistakes do happen… even to you.
It is not about you
Most times people are upset about the situation, not about you as a person. They are frustrated
with your behavior or work product, but that does not mean you are a bad person. You just
made a mistake, it is not the end of the world.
You are not the problem, but you did contribute to it
You do not have to accept that you are a bad person, but you must accept responsibility for your
actions. Take fast and full responsibility for what you have contributed to the problem.
It is out of your control
One of the most difficult factors of challenging communications, is the level of fear, anxiety and
stress you can create for yourself, worrying about how the other person will respond to the
negative situation. It is only human not to want to hurt another person or be scared that they
will be mad at you if you deliver bad news, but trying to avoid these uncomfortable feelings by
not sharing the information is much worse. You must realize that you cannot control how others
will react, but there is something you can do…
Prepare for the worst
Instead of trying to control the other person’s reaction – prepare for it. Imagine how the
conversation might go. What might they say? How might they react? What will likely happen?
Then try to plan out what you can do to keep focused, calm and professional. What would be
the best way to respond? How will you deal with them? What can you do to make the
conversation go more smoothly, yet still tell the truth and deal with the issue.
Take a breather
If things are not going well, and you feel threatened or confused, ask for a short break to catch
your breath and think the situation through. A short five-minute respite can do wonders for
helping you regain your composure and plan out the best way to get the communication back on
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now that we have explored many of the ways a simple conversation can turn ugly, let’s look at
the process for effectively managing challenging communications.
1. Think it through first
What really happened? How do you feel? What is the impact on you? Have you made any
assumptions? What stories have you created? What do you think their side of the story is?
What rules or beliefs are at stake? What have you contributed to the situations? Give it some
serious thought – before you take action.
2. Get clear on your purpose – Why are you really having this conversation?
Is it to:
• prove a point
• assign blame
• hurt the other person
• show them up
• scare or intimidate them
• put them in their place
Our goals must always be to:
• achieve better communications within the organization
• foster team work
• serve the client
• help and support others
• teach and mentor
• speed things up
• avoid future mistake
Key Point: You must clearly establish what you honestly hope to accomplish in the
communication, and then adjust your attitude, behaviors, approaches, emotions and energy into
successfully achieving that purpose.
You must always keep focused on learning, sharing, understanding and
3. Set the stage
# Do not begin by blaming, attacking or accusing
# Describe the problem as a possible miscommunication, a misunderstanding
# Establish that you understand that there are two legitimate sides to every story
# Clearly communicate your goal for the communication
# Invite them to join you as a partner in working the problem out
# Show confidence in a positive outcome
4. Focus on them first
Ask them to tell their side of the story first. Give them your full attention. Ask questions and
actively listen. Uncover how they are feeling, what emotions are effecting them. Determine
what is at stake for them, how they might be impacted. Summarize and paraphrase to make
sure you understand them. Don’t move on until you feel confident that you have a complete
picture of their world.
5. Paint a picture for them
Share your side of the story. Describe what you are thinking, how you feel, what your intentions
were, how you feel impacted. Help them understand the situation from your point-of-view.
Key Point: Keep it focused. Keep it professional. Keep it on track. If you feel like blaming,
stop yourself. If they start to accuse, bring them back. If emotions flare, take a break. Keep
everything centered on sharing each other’s stories and perceptions of what has occurred. No
judgment, just exploration.
6. Agree on where you are now
Once you have all of the facts, feelings, assumptions and impacts out on the table, agree on the
parameters of the situation. Come to a mutual understanding.
7. Work for a workable solution
Problem-solve. Brainstorm. Weigh options. Imagine possibilities. Find a realistic course of
action to address the situation.
8. Next time
Discuss how to avoid similar problems in the future. Establish specific ways to improve your
communications. Agree to work together in the future to minimize challenging communications.
ADVANCED COMMUNICATION TOOLS
Questions – quality, focused, well thought out questions are some of the most powerful
communication tools available.
# Questions beg an answer
# Questions focus thinking
# Questions guide a discussion
# Questions dictate the answer
# Questions convince
# Questions get people involved
# Questions set the tone
# Questions lead to solutions
SOME DO’S AND DON’TS
Do: Ask open-ended questions that require a person to give you more detail and information.
How did that make you feel?
What were you thinking about when you…?
Why is this important to you?
Don’t: Camouflage statements or accusations as question.
You’re not going to be late again are you?
Do you have to be so pushy all the time?
This isn’t the finished letter, is it?
Do: Ask for more detail
Could you help me understand…?
I am confused, will you please explain…?
In as much detail as possible…
Don’t: Use questions to argue
You seem to think I caused this mess, but it is obvious you did most of the damage,
wouldn’t you agree?
Do: Use cushions:
In order for me to help you…
So that I can understand more clearly…
To make sure that I understand…
To avoid any hard feelings...
So that I can understand your point-of-view, will you describe for me in as much detail as
possible how you feel this happened?
Please tell me how you think I might have contributed to this situation?
How do you see it differently?
I know it is awkward, but could you share with me how you feel about what has been
What impact have my actions had on you?
Were you reacting to something I said or did?
What would have to happen to make you feel like the problem has been taken care of?
How does it make you feel when…
What information might you have that I don’t?
What are the main things you are concerned about?
In order for us to reach a solution, what are some of the options you are thinking about?
Do you feel like I have a good understanding of what you are concerned about?
Is there anything else you would like to share with me?
What have I forgotten?
What would you like to do about it?
How can we make this better?
What can we do in the future to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
Do you have everything you need?
What else can I do to help you?
Have I done something to upset you?
Can we agree to work on this together?
AFTER YOU ASK THE QUESTION…
Paraphrase or summarize to demonstrate understanding
- so what I hear you saying is…have I got it right?
- in other words…is that correct?
- what you have told me is...is that right?
Acknowledge their feelings
- you seem really upset
- it sounds like this is very important to you
- I can understand. If I were you, I would probably feel that way too
- that must be very frustrating
Make it safe to talk
- use encouraging verbal cues (yes, go on / I see / O.K. / and…?)
- use encouraging non-verbal cues (head nods / smile / eye contact)
- don’t show your emotions (clench teeth or fists/ frown/ fidget in chair)
- don’t interrupt / correct / sigh / huff
Say what you mean
- don’t hide your meaning and make them try to guess what you are thinking
Don’t present your side of the story as right – their side wrong
- this creates resentment, anger and defensiveness
Don’t exaggerate with: always / never / every time / everybody
Make sure they understand you
- ask them to summarize or paraphrase what you have said
- ask them what else they need or want to know
- ask them if they feel they really understand you and your feelings
LEARN TO TURN IT AROUND – THE PERSUASION MODEL
There is a four-step process for getting someone to change their mind, called the persuasion
1. Acknowledge and validate their point-of-view and feelings (not agree with them)
2. Give them a reasonable new position to consider
3. Replace their view with the “new view”
4. Acknowledge and validate their acceptance of the new view
Here is how you get it started:
They say: You did this on purpose.
You say: I see that you are very upset, and I can understand why. I know it seems like I might
have done this to make you mad, but that was in no way my intention. It was an honest
mistake, I simply forgot. Would you be willing to talk about this to clear it up?
They say: This is all your fault, you have messed up everything again.
You say: I am not happy about this either. I am sure I caused some of this, but it seems like
maybe we both contributed to the problem. Rather than focus on whose fault it is, can we just
take a few minutes and examine how we got here and all the factors that contributed to the
situation? Would that be fair?
They say: You are completely mistaken. I know that this is exactly what happened.
You say: You seem pretty upset, and I can tell you feel strongly about this. I’d like to ask you a
few questions to make sure I completely understand where you are coming from, then maybe I
can share my perspective with you. Would that be alright?
They say: This is totally unacceptable, I can’t believe you would turn in work like this.
You say: I am confused. I thought that I had understood your directions and tried my best to
follow them. I don’t want you to be disappointed in my work, so could you please take a little
time to show me specifically where this is not what you requested and how you would like me to
do it differently in the future. I am sure that would help both of us, wouldn’t it?
Describe the situation as a non-judgmental third party might explain it:
What are the “facts” of the situation?
What assumptions might you be making?
What might you have contributed to the situation?
What emotions are you feeling about this situation and the people involved?
What is your purpose for having the conversation?
What are some “I” statements you can use to describe your thoughts and feelings?
What are some questions you can ask?