1. Fernandez, Claudia Plaisted DrPH, MS, RD, LDN

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Managers are often faced with the dreaded "difficult conversation." For some people, this event is so terrifying that they employ the ostrich strategy, avoiding the event altogether and living in denial of the serious problems their organizations face. Good managers practice the art of the difficult conversation. This requires patience, calmness, and objectivity-what author Ronald Heifetz might call "getting on the balcony."1,2 But the artist of the difficult conversation understands that getting on the balcony is not enough-you need to get others there too.


When people are caught in a contentious issue, they come to the table with their position staked out in the sand: "my team needs that office space!!", "our budget allocation must be[horizontal ellipsis]," "my line of authority includes[horizontal ellipsis],." Whatever the issue: territory, power, symbols, money, resources, time-they come with a goal, and I want position.


Lucky for managers, there are some simple tools to take the terror out of holding difficult conversations. The first tool is a classic: whole heart listening. You might have heard this described as active listening.3,4 This is when your total attention is devoted to hearing what the other person is saying, and not to enumerating the flaws in their argument or planning what you are going to say in response. Whole heart listening, without judgment, helps people feel heard.


Another tool for facilitating difficult conversations is letting the person know what you heard them say. Rephrase their concerns using different words. Do not merely parrot the words they said: rephrasing helps you both gain clarity. Then, reflect the emotional content of what they are saying. Sometimes in order to feel heard, people need an acknowledgment of their frustration, anxiety, anger, or sense of injustice about the situation. So the kinds of statements you might find helpful to move the dialogue along include the following:


I can imagine that you must be feeling some anxiety over this.


I hear the tension in your voice; please tell me more about your concerns.


You sound very frustrated with this situation.


You might even consider saying something like "I'm feeling a bit anxious about this conversation. It seems that we're talking mostly about blame and not about the deeper issues." Recognizing and sharing your own feelings can help you manage the emotional side of a difficult conversation.


You cannot just avoid this emotional side altogether. If you are going to excel at the art of the difficult conversation, you have to realize that humans are emotional beings. Some are more in touch with their emotional sides, and some are more sharing about them, but essentially we are all creatures of feeling. When it comes to difficult conversations, it is very likely that at least one party to the exchange will be feeling some sense of crisis. People in crisis are more likely to be influenced by their feelings, beliefs, perspectives, and needs than they are when the stakes are not so high. Not acknowledging these feelings, beliefs, and perspectives will not make them go away.


Difficult solutions require what Ron Heifetz, in Leadership Without Easy Answers, terms Adaptive Work. Essentially, adaptive work means personal change. To practice the art of the difficult conversation, you have to be able to lead others through the required change: the change of perspectives, beliefs, needs, and feelings. One way to accomplish this change is through reframing. Reframing puts the issue in a different context. Someone could complain to you: "Listening to their whining is a waste of my valuable time." You can acknowledge their frustration but reframe the issue so that they see the importance of "listening to whining"--that, in fact, that listening may be the most important part of what they do every day. You have reframed the issue such that they now see value in something and a renewed sense of commitment to it.


The paramount tool for managing difficult conversations is to help people move from a focus on their "positions" to an understanding of their "interests." If you draw a picture of where two people of opposing desires stand on an issue, you could place two dots far apart and draw a line between them. Those are two opposing points-their positions. But if you draw large circles around these points, you depict the field of their interests. You can get people to think about their interests by helping them talk about what they want to accomplish through their desired action. For example, two colleagues may have opposite ideas about how to address a problem--but both have the same interest in solving the same problem: there is common ground.


Thinking in terms of positions versus interests creates a conversation that encompasses a range of concerns. Get your parties talking enough and you will very likely find that there are areas where their circles of interest overlap. Still having trouble? Push back the parameters to widen the sphere of consideration. For example, if you cannot agree on a course of action to take over the next 5 years, can you agree on where it should go in 50? That is the circle of widest agreement technique. The people in these discussions will not be in their current jobs in 50 years. The stakes are lower, and it is much easier to achieve agreement. One area of agreement makes others easier to arrive at. For more on this technique I suggest reading Getting to Yes, an excellent guide to negotiation strategy by Fisher and Ury.5


Here is another example: a disgruntled employee--say it is a man who has been with your organization for years--is talking ill about the department or team. Rumor gets back to you of this bad advertising. Do you reprimand the individual? Order him to cease expressing his opinion? Fire him? Do nothing? All those strategies come from the "company position" that unacceptable speech should be stopped. But what is your interest?


Reprimanding, squelching, firing, or ignoring is not likely to stop the bad-talking. They are more likely to spread it around and make it look justified. Assuming this person is a productive and valuable employee, what might be his interest in talking this way? Is he struggling with an organizational change or something similar? Is he disgruntled, feeling unappreciated, powerless, or voiceless? Maybe someone else was chosen for a promotion or attractive job assignment. If so, his interest is to become less disgruntled, feel more appreciated, have more power, or be heard. His goal is not to trash the organization, but to become an engaged employee once again. In fact, as his manager, that is your goal, too!!


You need to understand that people do not express this kind of dissatisfaction because they got out of bed on the wrong side or because of some personal deficiency. Usually it is based on their perceptions-their truth-of the organization. If their truth is the truth, then you as a manager have a task ahead of you far more challenging than successfully managing a difficult conversation-you have the task of examining and amending your organizational culture. However, let us assume that their view, their position, is slightly skewed from reality. Then, the good manager invests in them to help them gain insight into what they are feeling and why (listening, reflecting, reframing)-and helps them find the path to a more satisfying perspective of the organization. Hopefully this is a more rational truth of the organization.


In this case, the goal is to help the employee see that he has a vested interest in the achievements, success, and reputation of the team or department and that success will bring new opportunities for interesting and rewarding work.


Once you gain comfort with these simple tools, you will be amazed at how much easier managing the difficult conversation becomes (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 2 - Click to enlarge in new windowTABLE 2 * Guidelines to follow for managing difficult conversation
Table 1 - Click to enlarge in new windowTABLE 1 * Artful tools for moving from positions to interests



1. Heifetz RA. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1994. [Context Link]


2. Heifetz RA, Linsky M. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press; 2002. [Context Link]


3. Landsberger J. Study guides and strategies: active listening. Accessed March 7, 2008. [Context Link]


4. Conflict Research Consortium, Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC), Conflict management and constructive confrontation: a guide to the theory and practice. Accessed March 7, 2008. [Context Link]


5. Fisher R, Ury W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin Books; 1991. [Context Link]