Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When and how to talk tough to others.

Post 370 - Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Difficult Conversations point out that every conversation includes facts - the date you were born, how much you pay for your mortgage - that have clear, right and wrong answers. Questions where information on these facts is easily available seldom cause difficult exchanges. Tough conversations are much more likely about issues where people can have different values, preferences, judgments and interpretations. When this is the case, strong feelings and identity issues are easily triggered.

For example, you probably won’t have a tough conversation about how much you actually pay for life insurance. But things can get more complicated in a hurry when you discuss whether you have “enough” insurance coverage. Reasonable people have different comfort levels with risk and different values around responsibility. Each party feels that there’s a right answer to this, but in reality there isn’t.

Whenever a question with a right or wrong answer comes up in a tough conversation, the real issue is almost always something else that has to do with meaning, feelings or identity. Just insisting that you’re right won’t get you very far when others with differing opinions believe they’re right as well. Instead, try understanding why they think the way they do while explaining as clearly as you can why you believe what you believe and why you feel what you feel. You can be committed to your own perspective while working to understand that of others. Understanding and conviction aren’t mutually exclusive,

Sometimes, people really can have bad intentions towards you. They’re trying to harass you, or steal your job, or your spouse, or whatever. Even if you suspect this is true, start by giving them the benefit of the doubt, “I don’t know whether you know this, but I felt very frustrated when you took all the credit for ---- in today’s meeting. I expected you to say we both contributed equally.” If they’ve made a mistake, now you’ve brought it to their attention without accusing them. They can then change their behavior to make everything OK.

However, if they are actually out to get you, they now know that you’re aware of this. So if they do it again, you can call them on it right away, “I wonder if you’re doing this on purpose? If that’s the case, we have a real problem here that we need to resolve right away.”

Save your tough conversations for issues or relationships that are important to you. This doesn’t mean you have to like the other party. It may just mean your relationship with them has a big impact on your well-being - you need to have a good working relationship with your ex for the sake of the kids - or the relationship is important to someone else you care about - such as when your wife feels it’s important that you get along with her mother.

And always consider you’re relationship with yourself as well. Your self-esteem and identity depend on how diligent you are in speaking up for yourself.

For those of you in relationships with children, I recommend the following two books to help you learn to become better parents:

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,
by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish


Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too,
also by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.

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