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Title News - September/October 2005

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September/October 2005 - Volume 84 Number 5

Rules of Engagement for Difficult Conversations

by Rhoberta Shaler, Ph.D.

Research shows that many people will quit their jobs rather than manage the interpersonal conflicts at work. But you can learn how to handle them with a positive outcome.

Do you avoid difficult conversations? You know, the ones you would rather not have to have? Difficult conversations are like walking in minefields. You’re stepping very carefully. You’re paying attention. You’re aware, even hypervigilant, and there is still the possibility of “kaboom!” Unless you have a detailed map of the minefield, you are anxious, uncertain, and intimidated by the potential for harm.

That is why so many people avoid difficult conversations. Avoidance may create a sense of safety, but it creates a danger too. Without the ability to sweep the minefield, no progress can be made toward the goal! Sweeping the minefield demonstrates your willingness and desire to move forward. Sweeping, though, requires courage.

Good communication skills are like a metal detector in that minefield. They allow you to sweep the area looking for previously undetected danger zones. Once found, the operator can probe around the sensitive area to see how far it extends. Then, the object can be carefully exposed to reveal its true form and color. It may be simply an errant piece of shrapnel from a previous engagement or a real mine protecting personal or professional territory. By proceeding with great skill, no one will get hurt.

Good communication skills give you the confidence to walk in minefields unscathed.

Good communication skills give you the confidence to have difficult conversations.

Rules of Engagement for Difficult Conversations
1. Listen rather than hear.
2. Honestly endeavor to understand the opposition first.
3. Be clear about what you think and want.
4. Invest time in preparation.
5. Be willing to engage and go the extra mile.
6. Understand the skills required for adequate self-defense.
7. Understand the difference between self-defense and defensiveness.
8. Choose appropriate timing.
9. Remain engaged.
10. Believe that peace is possible as even an agreed-upon truce is peaceful.

Listen Rather Than Hear
The difference between listening and hearing is the difference between memorizing a recipe and eating. You can even recite the recipe back, but you still do not have the flavor!

Listening is dangerous. You cannot do it without engaging with the other person. It involves empathy and feeling. Listen only if you care about the person or about the relationship. Otherwise, hearing is adequate.

Hearing is done every moment of the day. Listening requires attention and effort. When you are truly listening, you are picking up both the verbal and the nonverbal communication, integrating the information and feeding back your understanding of the message. Listening takes intention, willingness, caring, and courage.

Honestly Endeavor to Understand the Opposition First
Stephen Covey said this well when he wrote: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

We are all longing to be understood, to be seen, to be heard. It makes us feel connected. You demonstrate maturity when you can delay your own desire to be understood until you are clear about the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and goals.

How do you ensure that you understand the other person?

  • Ask questions.
  • Listen well to the answers.
  • Check your understanding for accuracy with the speaker.
  • Stay with the conversation until you both agree that you know what the other person intended to convey.

There is a big difference between a communication—which is simply a message—and communicating, which means the message has been received in the way it was intended!

Be Clear About What You Think and Want
Often, people go into a difficult conversation focused on how they want the other person to change. Unless you are the boss with the clout to fire the person, that approach will likely backfire.

The only person’s behavior you can change is your own. When entering a difficult conversation, take ownership of your part in the issue. In your preparation, look deeply into your own motives, words, and actions. Be prepared to clarify your thinking and talk about your feelings.

Invest Time in Preparation
When you have decided to embark on what you think might be a difficult conversation, do your homework:

  • What about the event concerns you?
  • What would you like the outcome of the conversation to be?
  • What feelings do you have about the issue?
  • What about the issue evokes those feelings?
  • What would help you with the issue?
  • What are you doing to maintain the issue? Aggravate it? Diminish it?
  • What do you think is the best way to begin the conversation?
  • What will you do to keep the conversation on a forward-moving track?
  • What will you do if you derail? Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

Be Willing to Engage and Go the Extra Mile
Be ready not only to understand the other first but also to keep the conversation going until the difficulty is clarified, if not resolved. Know that it may well take more than one conversation.

Let the other person know that you appreciate their willingness to handle the issue.

When progress has been made or a breakdown has occurred, step outside the issue. Say something like, “I think that it might be best for us to take a break and revisit this issue. Can we arrange a time now to meet again?” Agreeing to continue the dialogue until some process for managing the conflict is found allows you to take the time — and, perhaps, the baby steps — you need to maintain safety and sanity.

Understand the Skills Required for Adequate Self-Defense Each person has the right to be treated respectfully. If you are feeling abused by the words of another, be sure to tell that person how you feel and how you would like to be spoken to...respectfully, of course.

You are responsible for teaching people how to treat you. Always remember that.

It is perfectly reasonable to call a halt to a conversation in which you are repeatedly feeling abused. (If you find ‘abused’ to be too strong a word, substitute belittled, put down, talked down to, or insulted.)

Understand the Difference Between Self-Defense and Defensiveness
Self-defense is the act of defending yourself. NOTE: This is not the act of making excuses. It is simply the ability to speak up for yourself honestly and with integrity. It is stating your case without the need to make the other person wrong or blame them for your actions or feelings.

Defensiveness is an attempt to keep your opponent from scoring a point. It includes any tactic used to resist or prevent aggression. This includes the tit-for-tat kinds of conversation folks create in the guise of managing issues. You know the one:

She: I would like it if you would pick your clothes up off the floor at least once a week.

He: Well, you’re not always so perfect. What about your filthy car?

That’s defensiveness on his part. He is endeavoring to deflect the conversation from his behavior because it makes him uncomfortable and may require him to change.

Choose Appropriate Timing
Be sure to check with the other person either to set a time for a difficult conversation or to inquire if the present is a good time to talk. Before you even do that, make sure that you have chosen an optimum time and that there will be sufficient time and a private space in which to converse.

Yes, you may have to bite your tongue just at the moment you would most like to speak. If you really want the relationship to move forward, though, choose your timing well to ensure the best result.

Remain Engaged
When words get tough or hot, most people have a tendency to run. Many take that one step further and want to both hit and run! They want to have their say and stomp out without having to listen to the other. Sound familiar? Those conversations often take place at home, too.

Once you have met at the agreed upon time, you’ve done your homework, and you’re feeling prepared, set some guidelines for the conversation. Discuss what you will do before emotions rise so you feel safer to proceed.

I believe that, in any relationship, the person who is most sane at the moment is responsible for the relationship. This particularly applies to difficult situations. The first person to notice that the conversation has deteriorated from constructive to destructive can help the process by commenting on the change. Check in to see if you both think it is a good time to quit or to continue the discussion.

Believe Peace is Possible
The attitudes the parties bring to a difficult conversation determine the outcomes. When you approach a situation believing it can be remedied, you are ahead of the game.

So often, folks engage in negative self-talk: “She’ll never change.” “There’s no point in even bringing it up.” “He’s impossible.”...and much worse, right? If you believe that an agreement can be reached and demonstrate your willingness to engage in the process of finding it, you are part of the solution. If you refuse to discuss the issue, you remain part of the problem. Which are you?

Knowing these things will not take the ‘difficult’ out of difficult conversations. Few people seek out confrontation for enjoyment. Those who do may need more help than this article can offer!

When you do want to work something out with another person, following these guidelines will help you to bring your best to the table and, therefore, give your best to the conversation.

If it feels as though you must walk through minefields to reach your field of dreams, use these rules of engagement to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you. And....keep walking!

Dr. Rhoberta Shaler speaks to, trains, and coaches executives in the communication skills essential to creating conversations that reduce conflict & anger, and streamline negotiation. Shaler is founder and CEO of the Optimize! Institute in Escondido, CA, and author of "Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work." Get her free e-zine, "The Rhino Wrestler" at She can be reached at 604.886.5986.

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