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‘Difficult conversations – How to discuss what matters most’ – adapted from the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project

Written by: Allison Taylor | Posted on: | Category:

Welcome to being human

People are people. We don’t outgrow difficult conversations or get promoted past them. People are happy to find a way through difficult relationship dilemmas at work and at home. Within the business community handling difficult conversations is a prerequisite to organisational change and adaption. Having those conversations skilfully can help secure change in a positive way.

The 3 Conversations:

Difficult conversations are a normal part of life. Start by sorting out the three conversations. It’s about decoding what, say Jack, thought and felt but didn’t say and what was actually said.

The ‘what happened?’ conversation

what’s the story here? Usually there is some form of disagreement about what happened and whose fault it was. Who’s right, who meant what and who’s to blame? The assumption that I am right, and you are wrong causes endless grief and it’s a dead end. Accept that there are conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values. Shift from proving we’re right to proving we’re right to understanding both sides. What I think about your intentions and you think about mine will have a profound effect. We make a serious error; we assume we know the intentions of others when we don’t. When we are unsure, we tend to assume they are bad People’s intentions are complex and invisible. Avoid leaping to unfounded assumptions. Talking about whose fault it is and who’s to blame is similar to talking about truth, it produces disagreement, denial and little learning. Nobody wants to be blamed so we will put huge effort into defending ourselves. Focus instead on understanding the contribution system. The distinction between blame and contribution may seem subtle but it’s the difference that makes the difference.

The ‘feelings’ conversation

Are my feelings valid, what if the other person is hurt or upset? Difficult conversations are not just about what happened; they also involve emotion. In the presence of strong feelings many of us work hard to stay rational. Bringing up feelings can seem messy, cloud our good judgement, be scary and make us feel uncomfortable. Feelings are however an integral part of the conflict. Sometimes we should let sleeping dogs lie, but we also must be prepared to talk about our feelings and acknowledge others.

The ‘identity’ conversation

This is the conversation with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are a good person or bad, competent or incompetent, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our image and self esteem? Our answers to these questions determine whether we feel balanced during the conversation or off centre and anxious. Getting to grips with it helps us manage our anxiety and improves our skill with the ‘what happened’ and ‘feelings’ elements of the conversation. Know that the identity conversation is a component of the difficult conversation and be prepared to grapple with it.

The Key Takeaway…

The key to having effective, productive, productive conversations is to recognize the presence of these deeper conversations, avoid the common errors, and turn difficult conversations into learning opportunities… This is discussed in the full paper found on the Fearless Community Members area. Alternatively, our coaches can help you through this process.

Insight Series blog posts are condensed versions of our full papers, to gain access to a free full Insight paper sign up to our Fearless Community Newsletter below.

All full Insight papers and other coaching / personal development tools can be accessed on the Fearless Community Members area of our website. If becoming a part of our Community is something that would interest you head over to the Membership area of our website https://www.fearlessengagement.com/

About the Author: Allison Taylor is an Associate Partner with Fearless Engagement and author of various strategic leadership articles about the topic of neuroscience in coaching and how this dovetails into leadership. She is an adventurer in all things, from photography to flying a Spirtfire. She does her best coaching with people who want to challenge themselves beyond what they thought possible.

The 3 words that sum her up are Courageous. Warm. Committed - 3 words that don’t: Wishy-washy. Thoughtless. Dogmatic. Allison’s best audience/coachees are those motivated to make a difference in their own lives and others’ – particularly senior execs whose example reaches far and wide and can have a significant impact… Her ideal superpower is – the ability to fly! So, if it’s time for you to find your wings, Allison is waiting on a mountain top – somewhere. Give her a call…

References: Adapted from the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Difficult conversations – How to discuss what matters most


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