SUBSCRIBE TO CMA'S BLOG
Tag Archives: difficult conversations
I’ve just returned to work at CMA after 12 wonderful months of maternity leave. Although I wasn’t formally running CMA workshops in this time, I was constantly observing our theories come to life in my new ‘job’.
Being a first time mum brings up many new and unexpected challenges. With the best of intentions, family, friends and even strangers’ unsolicited advice can leave you feeling overwhelmed and confused. And if the extreme exhaustion isn’t enough to deal with, mums can be faced with snide remarks from other mums, family feuds and even arguments with strangers!
Why? We all make different assumptions about what’s “best for the baby”. Whether it be ‘leaving your baby to cry causes long-term psychological distress’, or ‘a strict sleeping routine leads to inflexible children’…. all of these assumptions are just interpretations drawn from the data all around us, such as books, studies, friends’ opinions and personal experience. And as we know, assumptions are not facts. And just as in the professional world, when assumptions misalign, conflict often results.
So what causes the hostility, the tension and sometimes the hurtful behaviour? Let’s use cognitive behavioural theory, and more specifically the Conflict Ladder (discussed in detail in our ‘Difficult Conversations’ workshop) to break down an example:
Two mothers, Debbie and Sarah are chatting about the controversial topic of breastfeeding. Sarah says, “It’s so sad that such a low percentage of babies are breastfed when the benefits are well published.” Debbie (who isn’t breastfeeding) gets teary and goes into “flight” mode and removes herself completely from the conversation.
So what’s happened here? Let’s begin by looking at Sarah’s perspective, starting off by looking at her behaviour which has sparked the conflict:
- Sarah’s behaviour: She made a comment about breastfeeding to Debbie
- Sarah’s emotion: She was obviously feeling very passionate!
- Sarah’s assumptions/thinking: “Breast is best!” and “Every child deserves the right to be breastfed”
- Sarah’s data: She has read information from the Breastfeeding Association of Australia and has spoken to many of her friends who have had positive breastfeeding experiences. Sarah has found it very easy to breastfeed her baby
Let’s contrast Debbie’s experience:
- Debbie’s behaviour: After hearing Sarah’s comments, Debbie gets teary and removes herself from the conversation
- Debbie’s emotion: She is feeling hurt and distressed
- Debbie’s assumptions/thinking: “Sarah is telling me I’m a bad mother and is trying to lay a guilt trip!” and “Maybe I am a bad mother? Maybe I made the wrong decision to stop breastfeeding?”
- Debbie’s data: Sarah made a negative comment about babies who are not breastfed
What Sarah is missing is another piece of data. Debbie had tried breastfeeding for a month, and was unsuccessful, with the baby losing weight. Although she wanted to breastfeed, she was advised by her health nurse to change to formula to ensure her baby would thrive.
So what can we learn from this example? Often we don’t have all the information available. We’ve all been guilty of it – making conversation and quite unintentionally, hurting someone in the process. We need to be mindful of our impact on others, and if we notice we have upset someone, we should have the courage to raise our concern with them and try and better understand one another. And if we are the person who has been offended, we also need to have the courage to raise this instead of opting for the flight response.
No one is saying it’s easy, but openly discussing your assumptions can go a long way at repairing or further strengthening existing relationships. And if all else fails and your assumptions are entirely different, try and focus on what you have in common. In the case of parents, even if ideas around appropriate parenting may be different, we can focus on common interests like providing a safe and supportive family environment.
The problem: “I’m coordinating an office-remodeling project with an assertive colleague. I’m the opposite; I usually give in. The problem is that I disagree with her approach. How can I stand my ground?”
During a recent negotiation skills workshop, a participant asked us to help them deal with a colleague who was more assertive than themselves. Here’s a summary of our advice..
Good question. But to answer it, we must go back to a more fundamental question: What’s your negotiation mindset?
In CMA’s negotiation skills workshop, we discuss the importance of meeting your counterpart’s needs. For some participants, this mindset is a revelation. But for those of us in the conflict-avoider camp, the other side of this goal bears re-emphasis: we also need our own interests met.
It’s not that anyone disagrees with this notion. Who doesn’t want their own needs met? It’s just that people sometimes feel uncomfortable doing it in practice – especially when it appears to be at the expense of someone else’s needs.
And herein lies the problem. People who are afraid to advocate for their needs often operate within an old paradigm. It says: every time I meet my needs, it’s a loss for you; and every time you meet your needs, it’s a loss for me. In fact, the most effective negotiators adopt a fundamentally different mind-set: they realise that with a bit of systematic, creative thinking, it’s often possible to meet both parties’ needs.
To put this mindset into practice, be systematic about driving options from both parties’ interests. Draw up a list of your project interests (e.g. usability, efficient use of space, expense, aesthetics, etc) and also consider your colleague’s interests. Then, when you meet with your colleague, have her clarify those interests. Finally, put the two sets of interests in front of both of you, and ask: “How can we meet each of these interests together?” You’ll be surprised at the innovative solutions that emerge!
Have you had a similar issue? Did you resolve it in a way which left all parties feeling satisfied? Let us know..
The team at CMA
I recently gave an interview on a podcast, in which I was asked to offer my “top tips” for having a difficult conversation. Here’s a summary of the 7 pieces of I offered:
- Be clear on your purpose. Work out what’s important. Why do you want to have a conversation. Not a reaction to something, but a clear objective. Why is it important? What do you want to achieve?
- Take off the demonising goggles. We all wear them from time to time. When someone does something we don’t like, we make all kinds of ungenerous assumptions about them – and usually blame their nature or disposition (“They’re selfish” or, “They don’t respect me”). But if it were us doing the same thing, we tend to look at the circumstances (“I didn’t get around to that because other stuff got in the way”).
- Make a great opening. Frame the conversation in a way that makes it safe for them, as well as for you. Safe means they feel respected (their view will be heard, their perspective will be taken into account). “Chris, I wanted to talk with you about the invoice you sent through this morning. I’d like to share my own thoughts on the invoice, hear your perspective and then see what flows from there. Have you got a few minutes to do that now?” And if you need to, reframe the conversation again and again. If they ‘arc up’, reframe. If things get confused, reframe.
- Share your story, but explore theirs. And be the first to notice the differences. Don’t confuse your story for the truth. The way you share your story is so important. In our workshops, we show people how to structure a story that fosters understanding and reduces the risk of conflict. If I say “I hate the way you undermine me in front of clients”, I may think I’m sharing my story, but I’m really just throwing accusations at you. But if I try, “Chris, at this morning’s meeting with the bank, each time they asked me a question, you stepped in to answer. I don’t know what’s going through your mind, but when you do that, it leaves me feeling as though you don’t trust what I’m going to say. Can we talk about how to avoid that happening again…?”
- Emotions aren’t a pair of muddy boots. In other words, they shouldn’t be left at the door! But while you shouldn’t ignore emotion, avoid being emotional. Talk about emotions; they form a key part of your story (and theirs). Trying to tell your story without talking about the emotions is like watching a movie like Avatar in black and white. If you don’t, they’re likely to play out in less constructive ways.
- Shift to a problem-solving stance. While the sharing of stories and perspectives is critical, it’s also important to avoid getting bogged down in endless story-telling. Recap what seems to be important to each person going forward, then ask – how do we address this in a way that works for both of us?
- Prepare! Perhaps this could have been the first tip, but it’s worth remembering that all of these tips are easier to follow if you’ve done some careful planning on each of the above points.
CMA’s Difficult Conversations workshop presents an excellent opportunity for you to learn and practice skills and techniques for handling tricky conversations confidently and effectively. Read more about upcoming workshops.
The CMA team