Supply the Light, Not the Heat

POSTED JUNE 1, 2016 - by Dina Silver

9 Simple Steps to Successfully Navigate Emotionally Charged Conversations

A new client has had a complicated and often difficult relationship with her boss. On bad days when one speaks, the hair on the other's neck stands on end.  At the same time, both are talented, creative, responsible and devoted to their jobs.  If either left the company, it would be a great loss-- and neither wants to leave.  In fact, both want to create sanity and calm in their relationship together -- but they're stuck in a rut and need some help.

I was brought in to work with each of them individually and to bring them together in facilitated conversation as needed. The goal is to give them tools to shift the way they communicate with each other so that the good work they do can happen more easily and with lots less stress.

You've likely been in or witnessed similar configurations and conflagrations in your own work life.  Maybe you've been on the receiving end of disrespectful communication from your boss, maybe you've left hurt feelings and tears in your wake and been mostly unaware, maybe you've got such a difficult colleague that you have perfected the work-around so that your interactions are reduced to the barest contact.

Human beings are complex – we bring everything that has formed us to the workplace and many of us do not have the skills to manage our mood, our language or our impact.  As a result, we spend enormous amounts of time trying to navigate the interpersonal minefields that spring up when a difficult person is a daily fixture in our life.

Once a relationship has gone sour it can seem impossible to resurrect -- but this is not the case.  The parties involved are both suffering though it may look like they are quite comfortable in their dysfunction.  To change the dynamic, one person must take the lead and inaugurate a conversation about what is occurring.  This requires a little courage and a plan for how to hold this kind of charged conversation.  You'll need to find the courage, but we can supply the plan.

The key is to bring clarity and calm to the interaction and leave your emotional baggage around the relationship under lock and key.  And once you've locked the baggage up, you can toss the key.

Leading with Light

This process is adapted from Susan Scott’s wonderful book: Fierce Conversations

The 9 Step Process

1. Name the issue.  Take some time to do this prior to meeting with your colleague so that you have a smart, succinct and emotionally clean way to present the issue.

2. Request a meeting.  Don't just pop in to your colleagues' office or cube and launch in. Name the issue you want to talk about, request a convenient time and then make sure you have an uninterrupted opportunity to have a serious conversation.  No phones, no email, no unexpected visitors, etc. Getting out of the office works well.

3. Share examples. Choose two or three examples of the lousy behavior you observe between the two of you.  Share the examples cleanly so that you are accurately describing what occurred without adding your emotion to the description -- remember the goal is to provide a way for the two of you to talk openly about the problem. If you make your colleague defensive or angry, you can pack up your toys and go home.  The litmus test for you should be that you are describing the example(s) just as an uninvolved witness to the interaction would have described it.  Just the facts, Jack.

4. Share your heart. Here's the part where you share how it feels to you to be stuck in this cycle.  Make sure you say "I feel" not "you make me feel."  Once you put your feelings on them "you make me so angry ..."  you have effectively primed the conversation for explosion.

5. Why it matters. What is at stake here if the status quo continues?  What is the impact of your dysfunction on the team, the business, each other?

6. Your fingerprint.  Yes, it takes two to tango and you're a part of the problem too!  Here's where you cop to your contribution to the situation.  This step is absolutely key!  Nothing is ever only about the other guy.  Recognizing and owning your part of the mess allows the conversation to be a shared opportunity instead of a blame game.

7. The fix.  Share your desire to repair and create a healthy and respectful work relationship.

8. A Penny for Your Thoughts? Conversation is a two-way street.  Now it's your colleague's turn to share his perspective.  Listen carefully and make sure you ask questions when you're unclear.  Resist the impulse to explain, blame or shame.

9. Next Steps. Decide jointly how you wish to move forward and what you both agree to work on.  Decide what mechanisms you will use to hold each other accountable.