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"The single most important thing [you can do] is to shift [your] internal stance from 'I understand' to "Help me understand." Everything else follows from that. ? Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

No two conversations are ever the same. However, conversations are the method through which we build relationships. In order to master the art of productive and effective conversation, it is essential to know the common types of conversations we all experience in our professional lives. This is the final instalment in a three-part series on conversation.

Ah, the difficult conversation. How we love to avoid these, don't we? If someone has been taking advantage of our good graces, or if someone's behavior is negatively impacting us, dealing with it can feel overwhelming. We never quite know which direction a difficult conversation will go, what dark paths they will lead us down, or whether we will make it to the other side and realize a resolution.

Are You An Ostrich Or A Mack Truck?

People typically handle difficult conversations in one of two ways. They either avoid the issue entirely, or they confront the issue and risk an argument. The problem with the "ostrich approach" is that resentment can build over time, and you miss an opportunity to improve the situation. The problem with the direct approach, on the other hand, is your fears of a confrontation could be realized and the situation could be made worse, not betters.

The key to gearing up for a productive, albeit difficult, conversation is to shift your thinking. It's not about proving a point or giving someone a piece of your mind. Instead, approach from a learning standpoint. If you approach a difficult conversation with the mindset that you want to understand what's happening from the other person's point of view, you've got a much better chance of having a productive conversation that ends in a resolution.

The Three Types Of Difficult Conversations

Every conversation will be unique, but generally, you can classify difficult interactions into three categories: What Happened, Feeling, and Identity.

In a "What Happened" conversation, the situation is often far more complicated than either party can see at the start. As the old saying goes, "there are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth." What Happened conversations are the epitome of this adage. When drilling down to "what happened," you've got to navigate conflicting opinions to uncover the truth. When everyone is hung up on who's right or wrong, who's at fault, or who had what intentions, the conversation is nothing but an endless cycle of blame.

In "Feeling Conversations" the situation is ripe with raw emotion. Everyone is feeling something, and they are feeling it deeply. There may be no facts involved, just damaged egos, hurt feelings, or even resentment. Problems that have festered over time typically result in a conversation about feelings. "Identity Conversations" are discussions about situations that threaten our very identity. Someone may come at you (or you may go at them) about who they are as a person. If you've ever been involved in a conversation that deteriorates into personal attacks, you've found yourself in an identity conversation.

Removing Emotions From The Equation

All three types of difficult conversations involve emotion. They are rarely about facts, specific events, or specific behaviors. When you find yourself mired down in a difficult conversation, you can reframe the discussion if you focus on learning, rather than feeling.

Instead of attempting to prove your point or change the other person's mind, put on the brakes and ask the other person to tell their story. Show genuine interest in what they have to say and demonstrate active listening to show them that you are taking it all in. Then, ask permission to express your story to them. You may not want to ask their permission, but your deference will go a long way in encouraging them to give you the floor.

Once both of you have objectively shared your stories, begin to work together to solve the problem. Set the tone by continuing to ask questions and listening actively. You may be surprised at how quickly the other person begins to mirror the tone you set. After all, it's pointless to continue to argue with someone who isn't arguing back. If they keep bringing feelings into the conversation, do your best to stay focused on the facts. Eventually you'll make headway.

Nobody enjoys difficult conversations, which is why so many of us avoid them in the first place. Instead of sticking your head in the sand, tackle issue directly - but always objectively - and remove emotion from the equation. You are allowed to feel your feelings, but as a leader, take the proverbial high road and don't let emotion drive the discussion. When you shift from a feeling approach to a learning approach, difficult conversations will almost always become productive conversations.


Larry Hart

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