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How to Talk about Tough Topics

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When faced with a conflict, our natural reactions are based in biology. As described by the famous "Fight or Flight" syndrome, impending danger spurs us to either attack or run away. Unfortunately, "fight" tendencies can lead to destructive arguments, while "flight" reactions make us avoid difficult discussions. And neither one will ever solve the problem! To replace conflict with problem resolution, you must override your biology and make a plan for tackling those tough topics. Here's how to do that:

Step 1: Do the Prep

Managing a tough talk requires preparation. If you try to "wing it", the conversation is likely to deteriorate in a matter of minutes. So here are the prep steps . . .

  •   Shift your emotions into neutral.
    For this discussion, you need to have your feelings under control, not simmering right below the surface. This means waiting till your anger or hurt has subsided, then trying to view the situation more objectively. Consider these questions: How would the other person describe this situation? How would they describe your attitude? What would an outside observer say about it?

  • •  Clearly define your goal.
    You must figure out what you want to accomplish with this conversation. You will then be able to keep the discussion pointed in that direction. Otherwise, you may wander off into irrelevant topics or rehash old arguments. If you have trouble defining your goal, perhaps you just want to get angry. If so, delay this talk until you can figure out what you want.
    Example: Your project is being held up by a colleague who consistently fails to send you data when you need it. Your goal is not to criticize this coworker, but to find a way to get the data.

  • •  Prepare a non-confrontational opening statement.
    The first sentence out of your mouth will set the tone for the entire discussion. The only time that you have complete control of the conversation is when you introduce the topic, so you must choose your words carefully. Strive for neutral language which states the result you want and does not blame or judge.
    Bad example: "You are totally disorganized and never get your work done on time."
    Better example: "I would like for us to find a way to meet the deadlines on this project."

  • •  Physically relax.
    Reducing physical tension automatically reduces emotional tension. So before your tough talk, take steps to physically relax. Take deep breaths, tense and release your muscles, go for a walk, visualize your favorite vacation spot - or whatever strategy works for you. You need to start this conversation feeling relaxed, centered, and focused.

Step 2: Focus on the Other Person

When we're irritated or upset, we want to immediately tell someone what they've done wrong and how they should change. That's just human nature. But, unfortunately, this is the sure path to a non-productive argument. Instead, you should begin your tough talk by focusing on the other person.

  • •  Tell them what you appreciate.
    Find something that you truly appreciate about the person and incorporate that into your discussion. This may be difficult, but most people have some redeeming qualities.
    Example: "I really do appreciate the time that you have put into this project."

  • •  Describe their point of view.
    Before launching into a lecture, describe how you believe the situation looks to the other party, even if you don't agree with it. This will let them know that you are not totally self-centered and have at least considered their concerns.
    Example: "Since you're working on several important projects right now, I'm sure that you have a lot of competing priorities."

  • •  Ask questions and listen.
    To more fully understand their point of view, and to show that you want this to be a two-way discussion, you need to engage them by asking a relevant, open-ended question. Then listen - really listen. Don't just wait for them to finish so you can talk.
    Example: "What are the most critical projects that you're working on right now?"

Step 3: Say What You Need

You have to be willing to say what you need in order for anything to change. Few people are good mind readers. Saying what you need works better than telling others what's wrong with them.

  • •  Make factual observations.
    Try to differentiate fact from opinion and describe situations as objectively (and neutrally) as possible.
    Example: "You have a lot of high-priority projects, and I have a project that I can't complete without your help."

  • •  Use I-statements.
    An "I-statement" is simply a non-confrontational way to express how you feel or what you want instead of criticizing the other person. Start the sentence with "I" instead of "you", then say what you want or need.
    Bad example: "You need to start sending me the data on time."
    Better example: "I need to figure out how to get the data I need at the appropriate time."

  • •  Explain the "costs" of the problem.
    Describe how this problem adversely affects you, the other person, the department, management, customers, etc.
    Example: "Although this seems like a small project, it effects the development of our next generation of products. Until this project is completed, the product development team can't establish a release date and the sales department can't take advance orders."

  • •  Explain your feelings.
    Telling someone how you feel is much more effective than acting out those feelings by yelling or sounding irritated.
    Example: "I do get really frustrated when I can't meet my deadlines because I'm waiting for this data."

Step 4: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Remember that you always want to keep moving this conversation towards your goal. This means exploring the situation and looking for possible solutions.

  • •  If you encounter resistance, explore, don't argue.
    When someone pushes back, that's an invitation to argue - but this is one invitation that you don't want to accept. Instead, try to learn more about where the resistance is coming from. This will help you figure out how to approach them.
    Example: The other party says "Your project simply isn't a high priority at the moment." Instead of hotly defending the importance of your work, ask a question that will help you understand the situation. For example: "Can you tell me what your schedule looks like for the next two months?"

  • •  Identify the real issues.
    Don't waste time arguing about symptoms instead of causes or about minor issues instead of major ones. Try to find the real source of the problem.
    Example: "I think the real issue is that we simply have conflicting priorities. We're both trying to get our jobs done and meet our objectives."

  • •  Look for areas of agreement and common goals.
    In most organizational or personal relationships, the people involved have some common interests. Agreeing on shared goals can be an important step towards a collaborative solution.
    Example: "I can certainly see the importance of your critical projects, and I'm sure you can understand my concerns. We both want to meet management's expectations, and those expectations unfortunately seem to conflict."

  • •  Acknowledge your part in the problem.
    Few issues are completely one-sided. Try to see how your own actions, behavior, or inaction may have contributed. Consider the points made by the other person to see if they have validity.
    Example: "I may not have clearly explained to management what will happen if my project is late. They may not understand the connection to product development. That probably has made it a lower priority for them."

Step 5: Reach Clear Agreements

Remember that you always want to keep moving this conversation towards your goal. This means exploring the situation and looking for possible solutions.

  • •  Look for creative compromises.
    Frequently, "win-win" solutions can be found when people take time to explore the problem.
    Example: "I don't think we can solve this without involving the people who set our priorities. So how about this - if we talk with both of our managers about these conflicting priorities, perhaps the two of them can either make a decision or help us get some clarification from upper management."

  • •  Agree on specific action steps.
    To insure that something actually gets accomplished, you need to reach agreement on who will do what.
    Example: "If it's okay with you, I'll go ahead and set up a meeting with the two managers. I'll draft an email explaining the situation, then let you review it before I send it to them."
    If all goes well with your tough talk, it may not even seem very tough after all!

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