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The Art of Difficult Conversations

Those of us who are conflict-averse hate difficult conversations. It’s no wonder that experts have started calling them “Courageous Conversations.” What makes them hard is:

  • Uncertainty about how others will react
  • Fear of it getting out of control
  • Discomfort about opening a can of worms with no solution
  • Not wanting to make things worse

Most are not skilled facilitators with a repertoire of techniques for dealing with group problems and most don’t have time to read a battery of self-help books. So, when we walk into such conversations, it certainly does take courage!

But it doesn’t need to. Everyone who is sad, mad, or frustrated shares a common goal: to make it better.

Tricks and techniques for facilitating hard conversations

It’s not as scary, if you stick to some of the experts’ tried and true techniques, and use simple  tools to vet feelings and problems in an organized way.

1)      Set some ground rules

a. We have a shared goal to make things better
b. We will not talk over each other
c. We will focus on the problem, not the person
d. We will speak for ourselves not for them
e. We will demonstrate that we have heard contrary points of view

2)      Develop a process for sharing insights, comments, observations, feelings, about the current situation

a.  Determine a method to give everyone a voice

  • Determine a structure for soliciting input (see options below)
  • Record input from every person in the room; record it on a flipchart or whiteboard, where all can see
  • Have people write and post sticky-notes for all to see

b.  Share comments (make sure everyone’s ideas are posted)
c.  Group shared concerns
d.  Develop a group process for which problems to address first

  • Those that have the greatest financial impact
  • Those that affect the most people
  • Those that participants “weight” as most important

3)      Discuss a range of possible solutions

Do not look for agreement right away. Rather brainstorm a bunch of different approaches; discuss the merits of each; refine and finesse the approaches with the greatest potential

4)      Determine an implementation strategy

Tools for soliciting input and structuring your conversation

Each facilitator has different ways of teasing out information and helping groups move their discussions and actions forward. Some of our “hands-on” favorites include:

1)      Road to There 

This wonderful tool helps groups envision and implement a change or apply learning. The 5-step group brainstorm process is innovative, effective, and fun!

  • Where is “There”? (The Ideal Future)
  • Where is “Here”? (Current State)
  •  What is “The Gap”? (the difference between Here and There)
  • What roadblocks will you hit? (Obstacles)
  • How will you get there? (The Road)

NOTE: this set includes sturdy vinyl road map; sticky notes; and participant worksheets

2)      Start – Stop – Continue – Change 

These sticky note pads are a perfect tool to debrief a project, team-building games and exercises, or review work processes and procedures that have become the norm.  Great for individuals or small groups, simply pass them around and prompt your group with the following questions:

  • What actions should you START doing to integrate today’s learning into your daily processes?
  • Which actions should you STOP doing to avoid current problems?
  • What’s still working that you should CONTINUE to do?
  • What needs to CHANGE in order to bring about the desired change?

3)      Sad * Mad * Glad 

For more productive teamwork, help your teams clear the air and discuss the “elephant in the room,” so they can move toward mutual understanding, new solutions, and greater productivity.

Put a bunch of sticky notes on each table, color coded for sad (blue), mad (red), glad (yellow). Have individuals think about what work issues make them sad, glad and mad, and put one thought on each note. When they are ready, have them come forward and post their notes on a wall or board at the front of the room. The facilitator can begin grouping similar sentiments, so the group as a whole can get a quick visual read about what’s working and what’s causing consternation.

NOTE:  You can prompt your group, as you see fit, to focus on organizational issues vs. personal issues; or to focus on process issues; etc.   You might suggest that it will be easier to think about what makes them glad after they’ve vented their frustration points

As you begin to debrief, I’d start with “GLAD,” noting that the team may have lots to work on, but there are some things that are working well, from which they can learn.  After that, work on the largest grouping issues first. Because everyone has expressed the problem, the group can turn their discussion to solutions.

This tool can be adapted to your content. For instance, if you’re teaching about project management, you could use the tool to uncover problems with your current approach, asking “what about your current process makes you sad, mad, or glad?”

4)      Works Well? Do differently?

Rather than having a free-for-all, each construct moves the group through a series of structured questions that tease out where individuals are in the current state, what’s good or bad about it, and how they might envision a new and better reality.

Create a visible record of the conversation

People have a way of repeating themselves until they think their message has been truly heard. Two easy tricks can help limit circular or repetitive conversations:

1)      Repeat back the other person’s argument. In fact, try to make their case for them . . . even better than they said it themselves.

2)      Write it down for all to see.  Recording conversations lets participants see their thoughts have been correctly heard. Several low-tech tools are great for this:

a. Flip Charts – if you fill up one page, post it on the wall where everyone can see it (don’t just flip the page over!)
b. Whiteboard – if you have it, use it! Make sure you’ll have enough space to gather everyone’s input; if not, you might have to write smaller or supplement with flip charts.
c. Tabletop Whiteboard – for small groups, a Tabletop Whiteboard will do the trick. It’s much better than having one person take notes on their own computer or notepad, because you won’t know if your thought has been captured incorrectly.

3)      If you are facilitating, it’s okay to paraphrase, but ask participants if you have captured their ideas properly.

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