For any number of reasons, you might find yourself facing the challenging prospect of having a difficult conversation. Speaking a hard truth to someone or delivering difficult news is never easy. Through my experience as a school board superintendent, I have learned that being prepared and having a strategy is far better than the “just do it” approach.
Scenarios for a Difficult Conversation
Consider the following scenarios and the potential for a downward emotional spiral into the abyss of defensiveness, accusation, shutting down, blame, and loss of focus:
- Delivering news to staff or unions about layoffs, cost-cutting measures, changes in working conditions, transfers, or new government-inspired initiatives.
- Working through a performance review with a direct report that outlines many “opportunities for improvement.”
- Meeting with a parent council group to advise them of pending changes to their school’s start time or working through the impacts of employee strike action.
- Explaining a decision to suspend or expel a student to an upset parent.
In each case, there is a risk that the meeting will get derailed if it’s hijacked by ramped-up emotions. Relationships can be damaged, opportunities to move forward may be lost, and significant energy is spent trying to get things back on track – the situation typically gets worse before it has any hope of getting better. Sometimes the reparations include apologies, loss of credibility, and compromised future opportunities.
Delivering difficult news is never easy, but I have learned that being prepared and having a strategy is far better than the “just do it” approach.
In terms of the emotional dynamics of these meetings, the best opportunity for success comes when participants can engage the parts of the brain that will lead to a focus on solutions and the best steps for moving forward. This is more likely to happen if voices remain calm, breathing is regulated, and blood is flowing to the brain.
One effective strategy for handling a difficult conversation was offered to me many years ago by an expert in the area of non-verbal communication, Michael Grinder. The strategy involves rethinking some of our assumptions about the importance of maintaining eye contact. Grinder provides a helpful tool for working through emotionally-charged conversations by differentiating between two-point and three-point conversations:
Two-point conversations occur when two participants maintain eye contact for its duration. It’s important to note, however, that the second party in a two-point transaction can also be a group of people. Two-point conversations have the effect of elevating emotional connection – it is exactly what you should do when you are delivering a positive message.
It’s also important to be mindful of the setting in which a two-point conversation will be taking place. Consider the implication of a message sender who is sitting behind a desk in a jacked-up office chair while the recipient sits in a lower seat across from them – a perfect setup if the goal is intimidation. However, this is not the right move if the goal is to preserve or build relationships, engage in respectful dialogue, or achieve authentic buy-in for a proposed solution. A better strategy would be to sit at a 90-degree angle in identical seats at a round table.
Two-point conversations have the effect of elevating emotional connection – it is exactly what you should do when you are delivering a positive message.
Delivering a difficult message should include a certain amount of two-point communication – but consider deliberately adding and referencing a third point of eye contact in order to relieve the tension. The third point could be a summary of the message written on a piece of paper if the meeting is between two people. In a larger group context, the third point could be a bulleted list of the problem (or relevant data/a proposed solution) on a flipchart or PowerPoint slide. This offers an outlet for tension as the message sender and message receiver(s) both focus their visual attention on the summarized representation of the difficult message instead of staring into each other’s eyes. This has the effect of differentiating the message from the one delivering it and can be a valuable asset in managing the emotions of the meeting.
This is not to say that there won’t or shouldn’t be ample two-point eye contact as the message sender checks in with the recipient(s), invites a response or comment, or builds on positive vibes. However, the presence of the third point offers a helpful outlet that can be used strategically to redirect the recipient away from the interpersonal tension in the room and increases the possibility for parties to remain focused on the matter at hand.
The presence of the third point offers a helpful outlet that can be used strategically to redirect the recipient away from the interpersonal tension in the room and increases the possibility for parties to remain focused on the matter at hand.
Having learned from both my mistakes and positive experiences over the years, I can honestly say that the two- or three-point conversation strategy makes a huge difference in how a message is communicated. It speaks to the importance of developing skills and strategies that will assist leaders in navigating the tricky waters of difficult conversations.
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