My coaching clients often identify issues that consistently drain their emotional energy. Many times, the issue involves another person, and the only way to resolve the issue is to have a conversation with that person. Unfortunately, few of us are adept, or even comfortable, beginning conversations that are going to be difficult.
Most of the time, it is a conversation my client dreads, which is totally understandable. Most of us aren’t trained to handle conflict, and we rarely see conflict done well. Every sitcom and reality show on television depends on people handling conflict poorly!
However, we can have productive conversations about disagreements that will actually strengthen our relationships. It takes a little courage if you don’t care for difficult conversations, but the results can be life-changing.
The key is to start the conversation well. This is the Opening of the Conversation Outline. Research shows that if we begin a conversation harshly, it will end harshly more than 90% of the time. The opening is crucial. We want to clearly state what we want to talk about it in a non-confrontational manner.
A harsh startup generally starts with the word “you.” We have a better chance of getting our desired outcome from a conversation if we begin with an I statement.
My first exposure to I statements was when my oldest son was in first grade. He had a very intelligent teacher who taught them all the simplest of I statements: “I don’t like it when you do that. Please stop.”
As adults, our I statements can be a little more elaborate. They contain four parts and begin with “I”:
- How we feel.
- The event that created the feeling.
- The effect that the event has on us.
- Statement of a positive alternative event.
It all goes together like this:
I [feel this] when [this happens] because [effect the event has]. [State positive alternative.]
Here are a couple of examples:
“I feel frustrated and annoyed when I am reminded to do my assigned task because I am a professional who takes my responsibilities seriously. I will finish my work without reminders.”
“I feel insulted and hurt when people call me rude names because it makes me feel disrespected. I work better when given constructive feedback in a positive way.”
It’s best to give an I statement as soon as an offending behavior has occurred. However, that isn’t always possible. When hearing our response after the fact, many people respond with incredulity or denial. They deny behaving the way described. When we talk about the event later, it’s a good idea to have the exact circumstances in mind and be ready to share them.
Sometimes, we are giving an I statement about something that happens regularly. If that is the case, be ready to share several examples. Be sure to state them factually and without blame.
Sometimes, we have contributed to the situation in some way. If that is the case, we can help to resolve the issue by admitting to our part in creating it. Maybe we haven’t let everyone know our expectations. Perhaps we’ve been annoyed for a while and haven’t spoken up. It could be that our nonverbals when we are upset provoke others to anger. If we contribute, we want to own it.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to reassure the person that we want to resolve the issue. We want to be sure that they know our intent is to create and maintain a positive relationship. After all, that is the hallmark of a great leader.
Now we go through the rest of the Conversation Outline: Discover and Share > Develop Solutions > Agree > Close. Discover and Share is the most important step. We want to use active listening skills be sure to ask about the fact and feeling parts of the issue. We want to be sure that the other person feels confident that we understand and acknowledge his or her positions, interests, and feelings before we move on to Develop Solutions.
Once we agree on a solution, we want to discuss what we have learned and where we are now in the Agree step. We want to be sure to clearly define who is doing what by when.
In Close, we ask if there is anything else that needs to be said and express gratitude for the person for working through the challenge or issue with us.
When discussing conversations that need to happen with coaching clients, they often tell me that the other person won’t be able to handle the discussion or that talking with him or her won’t help. First, the alternative to not having the conversation is to continue to endure a situation that is causing stress and draining emotional energy. Second, we really don’t know how it will turn out until we try. The other person may get emotional. That’s okay! It is perfectly alright for people to feel strong emotions. We don’t need to protect them from that – or run from it. It takes some courage, but we can witness someone feeling strong emotions. In coaching, we call it standing in the lion’s roar. I love that metaphor.
I want to add one caveat. I find that most people are reasonable human beings who will engage in a productive conversation if given the invitation and circumstances that make them feel safe to engage in a dialogue. Effective conflict involves telling others what we think and feel. We must be a little vulnerable, and most people are willing to do that. However, there are a few mean-spirited people out there whose goal is to cause harm. It isn’t a misunderstanding; it’s an attack. If you can, let those people go.
If you can’t let them go, document every conversation. At work it is especially important to get everything that you can in writing. Send an email summary of the conversation, and ask for the other person to confirm that you understood everything correctly. Whatever the circumstance, do your best to keep the negative meanies from stealing your joy. They are not worth it.
Most of the time, we can improve our lives by easing tension and removing energy drains with some preparation, determination, and courage. Grab some support if you need it, and know that no matter the outcome, the conversation is usually worth it.
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