Leadership Coaching Tip: Preparing for a Difficult Conversation

Leadership Coaching Tips / June 2009

volker frankAll leaders find themselves in situations where they need to sit down with somebody for a difficult conversation to resolve a conflict, present a challenging position or negotiate an agreement. Often we have conversations in our head, preparing a speech or an opening statement and then responding to uneasy feelings and a vague sense of how the other side might respond—usually with an increasingly emotional charge on our end. More often than not this approach does not produce confidence in a satisfactory outcome for the conversation and we end up procrastinating on setting up the conversation. The lost time generally only increases the pressure and urgency around the troubling situation. Additionally, with the passing of time we lose possible options and choices for next steps that may require time, like getting more information, providing both sides time to ponder what was said and arrange for a follow up meeting.

Instead of wasting time in the car, lying awake at night or drifting off while trying to do the groceries, here is a simple 15 minute exercise that allows you to prepare for a difficult conversation in a powerful way.

Set up three chairs so that two of them are directly facing each other and the third chair is off to the side facing the two others. They end up forming a triangle. Now, sit down on one of the chairs facing each other and imagine the other person sitting in front of you willing to hear you out without interrupting. Then, state your piece. Speak freely and allow anything that comes to you pop out of your mouth without editing yourself. Speak aloud so you can hear yourself talk. What is important to you? What do you want to accomplish? How do you know that the outcome has been accomplished? What is your intention? What are your worst fear and least desirable outcome? What about it specifically makes it so undesirable? Give yourself permission to speak until you feel complete for now.

Then switch chairs and sit down where the other person sat just a moment ago. Look through their eyes at yourself, breathe through their lungs and feel into their body frame. Take a moment to clear your mind and just look at yourself in the other chair. Allow yourself to be surprised by what impressions come to you and what you would like to start with. Maybe there is no surprise at first. Allow yourself to speak just as freely to the same points as you have just done, but now from the position of the other person. Focus on stating the position. There is no need to respond to anything that was just said.

When you are done, move over to the third chair and assume the position of a neutral observer. From this position, recap what you have heard from both sides—where are the main differences, the common ground, shared intentions with different methods to get there and anything else that strikes you as important from the neutral position.

When you are done and you have some extra time, you may want to move through the three chairs again for a second round. In addition to anything else that may have come up in the interim, also acknowledge aloud anything that surprised you to hear about the other position. What do you now appreciate and understand that was not so clear before? What is the effect of these new observations?

Now take five minutes to make some notes to yourself. What is most important about the conversation and needs to be stated clearly? What do you want to acknowledge that you understand and appreciate about the other position? What are your goals and priorities that lead to the desired outcomes?

You may wonder if setting up the chairs is worth the effort. The process of physically moving around, seeing the room from a different perspective, and visualizing the other person and yourself in the other chair supports our brains in getting access to new information. It is a profound effect and is well worth the extra effort. Let yourself be surprised by the information that you get access to when you change chairs.

Congratulations! Now you are prepared to have this conversation. The next step is to set up a good time and place for it. Consider how the meeting place sets the context for the conversation. Would the other person be more comfortable on their home turf – their office? What does it mean if you invite them to your office? Or is there a neutral space that would set an important signal for the other person? The context also sets a tone for how formal or informal the conversation will be. Meeting in a conference room is different than getting together at a local café. Generally, the other person can hear you better when they are comfortable and greeted with consideration.

Now it is time to take action: pick up the phone or write an email to create the time and space for the conversation. don’t wait for an opportune moment. Be clear and transparent what the conversation will be about so that the other person has time to prepare as well.

Here are a few comments that may support you in getting the most benefit out of this exercise. Often, when we find ourselves in a conflict, it is worth looking for the issue behind the issue. What is the overt disagreement really about? What lives just below the surface that is much more difficult to talk about and the bone of contention is a safer alternative? A very popular dynamic in conflicts is that we externalize the conflict that we don’t want to face internally. For example, the risk taker does not have to face his or her fears and doubts if somebody else on the team advocates the safe, conservative position. What aspect are we not paying attention to or disowning in ourselves that shows up in the external world? A firm and clear position that acknowledges the complexities of a multi-faceted situation leads to much better conversations than a polarized extreme position. And allow yourself to be moved and your position to change in a conversation. That appears to be an integral part in conversations that lead to win-win outcomes.

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Volker Frank works with small and medium size businesses that face difficulties reaching their goals, managing organizational change and resolving leadership issues. He supports his clients to increase their effectiveness and ability to learn and adapt quickly to internal changes and external demands. As a former software consultant he focused on how people work, which shaped a conviction that working with social dynamics is key to increasing organizational effectiveness. Today, he offers leadership coaching and works with teams and organizations to develop new ways of collaborating, planning and innovating. He is inspired by self-organizing and emergent solutions that bring out the best in people at all levels of the organization.