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I’ve talked with several people over the past few weeks about how to begin the difficult conversations that are the hallmark of psychological safety. Even if the group has norms in place that encourage people to challenge one another and to offer diverse ideas, it can feel intimidating to bring up a subject that is going to create some conflict.

A great way to start is with a CAR; it’s a feedback tool that includes Circumstances, Action, and Result. This format works well because it encourages us to talk about facts. Our discussions stay grounded in objective, observable behaviors.

CAR with outline

We begin by discussing the circumstances surrounding the action we want to talk about. We clearly outline when it happened and what was going on. For example, we might start with, “Yesterday when we were trying to get the order shipped for XYZ.” That tells the person or group what situation you are talking about.

Then we move on to the action or procedure that we want to discuss. We might say, “Fred followed our required procedures to get the order out the door.” It’s important to stick to observable facts and use no colorful adjectives or adverbs like “archaic” or “stupid” when describing the procedure or action – or a person, for that matter!

Then we explain the results of the actions. As much as possible, we want to make these business results – how the actions impacted the organization and group goals. If we continue with our example above, the results might have been that we did not get the shipment out on time because the required procedures include a lot of paperwork and time. We damaged the relationship with the customer, and our reputation for reliability was weakened. All of those results will make it more difficult to keep and gain customers.

After describing the circumstances, action, and result, we can offer an alternate action that would have been more useful. In our example, we might offer ways to streamline the process so that it takes less time. We could also ask for other people’s ideas about how to get orders shipped more efficiently.

It’s important to talk about the positive outcome that would happen with the new actions so that everyone stays focused on a positive business result. In our example, if we improve the shipment paperwork process, we can meet deadlines more easily, get more done faster, and maintain our reputation for reliability.

The beauty of the CAR format is that it helps to keep the conversation grounded in observable facts and desired business results. It keeps a group from blaming each other and going over past events. The focus is on achieving outcomes that help everyone.

Before we begin a discussion using the CAR format, it’s important to set our intention to create a positive, helpful environment for the conversation. Our purpose is to create success for the group and the organization, not to prove anyone wrong. We must maintain a helpful, positive attitude. We do not want to carry an adversarial attitude into the discussion.

The CAR format can be used to give any kind of feedback. In leadership workshops, we practice using it to give positive and developmental feedback to employees. We can use the CAR format to let someone know the specific action that he or she took that helped the team and organization. Remember, we want to create positive relationships and comment on the good things that we see as often as possible.

The CAR format is great for giving positive feedback because it tells the person exactly what they did that was useful and the good effect that it had for the business. Whenever we see someone doing something that we’d like to see them do again, we should give them some positive feedback on it. Appreciation is one of the biggest motivators for people.

Printing the CAR .pdf and using the individual CAR formats to keep track of feedback that we’ve given is an excellent practice. You can download a copy under the “Free Stuff” tab on my website. It’s a good way to collect information that we will need when we give performance reviews. It can be difficult to remember the actions of all of our employees over time.

It’s also a good idea to use the CAR format to keep track of our own actions. Our supervisors might not notice everything that we do. If we take a minute to jot down things we do, both good and not so good, we have specific examples to offer during our performance reviews. We can say, “I think I’ve done this well, and here are some examples.” Be sure to date the CARs. When asked what we need to work on, we will have already identified areas that we want to improve. If by chance our supervisors say that they think we need to improve in a certain area in which we have actually had some success, then we have ready examples of specific circumstances and our actions in those circumstances.

Maintaining a fact-based conversation with a positive attitude supports an environment of psychological safety. The CAR format can keep us on track and give us courage to start difficult conversations.

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