Sunday, March 9, 2008

Difficult Conversations - Azara Feroz Sayed

While we manage people, work with clients, vendors, care about family, friends, co-workers chances are good that one day we will need to hold a difficult conversation. These conversations are difficult because they involve issues and/or people who are important to us.

Difficult conversations happen when there is conflict, or anticipated conflict, between the ways two people perceive a given situation. For example, when we have to tell a coworker that she is not doing her part, or when someone has done something that has affected us negatively and we need to keep it from happening again.

In the book, "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most", authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shiela Heen from the Harvard Negotiation Project examine ways that people interact in a range of difficult conversations. It is a very informative book on the subject with lots of examples explaining each technique for managing difficult converstations as we expereince them through our life. Daniel Goleman, Guru of Emotional Intelligence, says about this book, "Emotional Intelligence applied to life's tough moments". While reading the book, apart from its application to my life, I could visualize its application to Feroz's research area of "Emotional Intelligence and Customer Service". Managing Difficult Conversations is an important skill in Customer Service. I would recommend to have the book in the house so everyone in the family can pick it up and read it to acquire the skill of managing difficult conversations. I have included a few excerpts from the book below.

Refer for "indepth overview" notes of the book
Overview by one of the authors
Refer summary

This book builds on Dr Covey's fifth habit - "Seek first to understand then to be understood". The structure of a difficult conversation has three simultaneous conversations. We need to understand them and drive the conversation to a learning conversation, before we get into problem solving. As human beings, we tend to focus more on aspects that we want to believe and ignore others, the "Seek first to understand then to be understood" exercise part becomes essential in that respect.

* The “What Happened?” conversation is about the factual matters at hand
- Be curious and try to understand. Where does our issue come from? Is it based on information, past experiences, rules? Similarly try to empathize what is the other person's issue? where does the other person's issue comes from? Often we go through an entire conversation or indeed an entire relationship - without realizing that each of us is paying attention to different things, that our views are based on different pieces information. How we interpret what we see are based on two especially important factors, our past experiences and the implicit rules we have learned about how things should and should not be done. Whether we are aware of them or not, we all follow such rules. They tell us how the world works, how people should act or how things are supposed to be. e.g. rules about cleanliness, adventure etc For example in a team situation, when a team member regulalry arrives late for a meeting, the other team members consider it as unprofessional behaviour on the part of the team member arriving late. This distrubs them and affects their work while the person arriving late thinks that it is something trivial and the team should not focus on his late arrival but worry about the task at hand. Each of us has a different world view and we need to get into the other person's world view to understand difficult conversations. Read the example of watching football on TV at the bottom of the post.

- What is the impact of this issue on us? What are our intentions in this issue? Similarly try to empathize what is the impact of this issue on the other person? what are their intentions in this issue? While we care deeply about other people's intentions towards us, we don't actually know what their intentions are. We can't. Other people's intentions exist only in their hearts and minds. We make an attribution about another person's intentions based on the impact of their actions. We feel hurt so the intended to hurt us. We feel slighted so they intended to slight us. In the example at the end of the post, Lori feels hurt and so thinks Leo's intention is to hurt her. Our thinking is so automatic that we aren't even aware that our conclusion is only an assumption. What's ironic - and all too human - about our tendency to attribute bad intentions to others is how differently we treat ourselves. When husband forgets dry cleaning, he is irresponsible. When we forget to book airline tickets, we are over worked and stressed out. When we are the ones acting up, we know that much of the time we don't intend to annoy, offend or upstage others. We're are wrapped up in our own worries, and are often unaware that we are having any negative impact on others. When we are the ones acted upon, however, our story too easily slides into one about bad intentions and bad characters.

- What have each of us contributed to the issue? Moving from assigning blame to mapping the contributions of each party. Focusing on blame inhibits our ability to learn what's really causing the problem and to do anything meanigful to correct it. At heart, blame is about judging and looking backward while contribution is about understanding and looking forward to learn how the issue can be addressed. In his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, writes about a statement made by a Dutch Reverend in Africa, "The white man has a more difficult task than the black man in this country. Whenever there is a problem, we (white men) have to find a solution. But when you blacks have a problem you have a excuse. You can simpy say 'Ingabilungu'...Xhosa expression meaning 'the whites'. Mandela says, The Reverend's message was everyone should look within ourselves and become responsible for actions.

* The feelings conversation concerning how each of us feel about the issue - This is about interpreting the significance of what is said and what is not. In the Feelings Conversation the shift is from making judgements and characterations to sharing feelings. Reframe feelings back into the conversation. The two hardest and most important communication tasks in difficult conversations are expressing feelings and listening. When people have hard time listening, often it is not because they don't know how to listen well. It is pardoxically, because they don't know how to express well. Unexpressed feelings can block the ability to listen. Why? Because good listening requires and open and honest curiosity about the other person and the willingness and ability to keep the spotlight on the other person. Buried emotions draw the spotlight to us. Instead of wondering "How does what they are saying make sense?" and "let me try to learn more", we have a record playing on our mind "I'm so angry with him". It is hard to hear someone else when we are feeling unheard, even if the reason we feel unheard is that we have chosen not to share. Our listening ability increases remarkably once we have expressed our own strong feelings. When we fail to share what's most important to us, we detach ourselves from others and damage our relationships. The ferry tickets to the island os Martha's Vineyard, read like many transportation tickets. Perforated in the middle, the ticket carries a warning that it will be "void if detached".

* The identity conversation where we assert and redefine our identity. The shift is from defending “the hidden threat to our identity” toward understanding and owning the part of the conversation that reflects on what I am saying to myself about me. The biggest factor that contributes to a vulnerable identity is all-or-nothing thinking. I'm either competent or incompetent, good or evil, worthy of love or not. The primary peril of all-or-nothing is that it leaves our identity extremely unstable, making us hypersensitive to feedback. All-or-nothing identities are about as sturdy as a two legged stool. There are only two options either deny the feedback that is inconsistent with our self-image or exaggerate the feedback to a crippling degree. "I will never amount to anything, I am worthlesse" etc. Learning to regain your identity balance is the key. After observing O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, sparring with an accomplished fighter, a young student said "You never lose your balance what is your secret?". O Sensei replied "You are wrong, I am constantly losing my balance. My Skill lies in my ability to regain it". Ability to manage strong emotions in important in difficult conversation, remember people are just giving you information - it is your choice as to what you do with it (ie get angry, stressed). We have to spot ways our self-image affects the conversation, and ways the conversation affects your self image.

Some of the other technics are
* Based on the learning conversations, check our purpose and decide whether to raise the issue - What do we hope to accomplish by having this conversation? Is this the best way to address the issue and achieve our puposes?

* Describe the problem as the difference between our story and the other person's story. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion

* Invite them to join as a partner in sorting out the situation

* Listening to understand which includes reframing. From truth to perceptions, blame to contribution, accusation to intentions and impacts, judgements, characterization to feelings e.g. They Say "I'm right and there are no two ways about it" You Reframe : I want to make sure I understood your perspective. You obviously feel strongly about it. I'd also like to share my perspective on the situation. They Say "You hurt me on purpose". You Frame "I can see you are feeling really about what I did, which is upsetting me. It wasn't my intention. Can you say more about how you feel" They Say "This is all your fault" You Reframe "I'm sure I contributed to the problem; I think we both have. Rather than focus on what fault this is, I'd like just to look at how we got here - at what we each contributed to the situation". They Say "You are the nastiest person I've ever met". You Reframe "It sounds like you are feeling really bad".

* Problem Solving - Invent options that meet each side's most important concerns and interests. Look to standards on what should happen. Talk about how to keep communication as you go forward.

This is one common scene wherein the wife wants the husband to accompany her to see her sister's first child in the hospital. Husband asks her to proceed as he is watching fotball and promises to visit the sister next day. The wife feels,"Football is more important than the family" but this time she is curious to know her husband's world view to make this decision. Husband explains "For you it is watching a game on TV for me it is a matter of mental health. Throughout the week I work 10 hrs a day under extremely stressful conditions then come home and play with the kids, doing whatever they want, struggle to get them in bed. Then spend time with you talking about your day. This is the only time when I can truly relax. my stress levels go down, almost as if I am meditating and these three hours to myself have significant impact on my ability to take on the week ahead. Since your sister won't care if I visited her the next day - I chose football in favour of my mental health". Note how the story changes based on additional information!!

Another common example that of mis-understanding intent and impact in a conversation
Lori: I really resented it at the party, the way you treated me in front of your friends
Leo: The way I treated you? What are you talking about?
Lori: About the ice cream. You act like yo're my father or something. You have this need to control me or put me down.
Leo: I wasn't trying to hurt you. You said you were on a diet, and I'm just trying to help you stick to it. You're so defensive. You hear everything as an attack on you, even when I am trying to help
Lori : Help!? Humilating me in front of my friends is your idea of helping
Leo : You know, I just can't win with you. If I say something, you think I'm trying to humiliate you, and if I dom't, you ask me why I let you overeat. I am so sick of this. Sometimes I wonder whether you don't start these fights on purpose.
You know the end of this conversation.....both feel angry, hurt, misunderstood. Two key mistakes here one by Lori and one by Leo make this conversation difficult. Lori assumes Leo's intentions are. Leo assumes that once he clarifies his intentions Lori needn't be upset and does takes time to learn how Lori feels. Leo is defensive throughout and at the end when he says that he sometimes wonders if Lori "starts these fight on purpose", he actaully acuses Lori of bad intentions and thus begins
a cycle of accusations. Both Lori and Leo think that are victim of other's bad intentions and are acting only to defend themselves. This is how well intentioned people get themselves into trouble.


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