Years ago I started to notice that the way I spoke to my children did not produce the desired results. I remember one day when my oldest brought home a B- in math, and I said something like, “You got a B- in math? What happened?” Immediately my spouse responded with, “Some kind of a communication expert you are!” I reacted by proposing that my intent was not to belittle or demean my son’s effort. My spouse pointed out the obvious by stating, “Well, look at your son and tell me what effect you just had on him.” His head was on his chest, his shoulders were hunched toward the floor, and he was slowly leaving the room. I called out to him, and all he could sarcastically say was, “Thanks, Dad.”
Since that time, I have noticed many people seem to communicate in a way that will ensure that they get what they want. The tactics that they use seem to manipulate and control the person in order to get their desired outcome. For example, some individuals always seem to have to be right, which makes everyone else wrong. Others only share a limited amount of information or withhold what they really want in order to maintain a sense of safety. Others communicate in an aggressive manner in an attempt to control the situation. Fear, for some, is the great motivator. Still others attempt to control others because of their need to look good. This reminds me of the ubiquitous bumper sticker that reads, “My five children are all on the honor roll at so-in-so school.” Obviously such a declaration makes the rest of us wish we had something to through.
Whatever the tactic used, control seems to be the desired outcome. Control strategies are obviously a form of ”fake talk.” Such strategies give the illusion of control, but they do not produce the desired results over time. Unfortunately, we may fail to realize that we are even using such tactics. Additionally, using control-based behavior does not help to build or improve respectful, trusting relationships.
Here are a number of behaviors that will help you to communicate to connect with others rather than seeking to control.
Examine your intent. We tend to judge others based on their behavior and ourselves on our intent. This leads us to give ourselves a pass because naturally we are well intended. Those that we judge are obviously ill intended because we feel that no one in their right mind would act that way. We need to identify what the intent or purpose may be for holding a difficult conversation or saying what we do. In every conversation, we should keep others’ best interests in mind.
Share your thoughts and feelings. This is very difficult for some people. But if you really want to connect with others, you must be willing to share what is going on with you. Sharing how you are thinking and feeling will help the other person in the conversation be more open to sharing as well. Sharing and listening to one another creates connections and understanding of each other.
Be open minded. If you expect to improve any personal or professional relationship, you have to be willing to hear what others are thinking, whatever that may be. If you hear something that you didn’t expect, don’t be derailed by the message. Ask questions and for examples to understand the other person’s perspective without defending yourself. After all, their perspective is not your perspective-that is what makes it so valuable. Seek first to understand and then thank the person for sharing their perspective. Your defensiveness in a potentially difficult situation will not inspire openness in the other person ever.
Be empathetic. This is not easy if you have not been trained to put yourself in another person’s shoes. One simple way to increase your ability to empathize with others is to ask yourself this question: “What would this person have to think and feel in order to say or do that?” This question requires you to relinquish your perspective for a moment and observe the other person’s world or experience from their perspective. Remember that what we deem to be irrational is rational to someone else. The challenge is to understand the rationality behind the feelings, words, and actions that we don’t understand. If you can’t understand, then respectfully ask them questions to improve your understanding.
Challenge your expectations. We have expectations that often go unidentified to others. If we haven’t been clear about our expectations, then they will most certainly be violated. When this happens, it is easy to become angry or frustrated with other people. Our negative emotional reactions then serve to hijack the rationality of the other person in the relationship. Sometimes our expectations are unreasonable, and sometimes we do a poor job of clearly explaining to others what we expect. Whatever the case, it is important to deliberately clarify what we want and to ask ourselves if we have been sufficiently clear. Unfortunately, we often don’t find out that our expectations need to be examined until they are violated.
Express care and concern. Recognizing and telling another individual how much we value their contribution and effort goes so much farther than trying to control or manipulate them. In fact, recognizing the efforts of others reinforces the importance of the desired behavior and increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.
I know of a woman who used control tactics in raising her children. Now that she is old and they are grown, they refuse to have anything to do with her because of the way she treated them. If she had expended her efforts in connecting rather than controlling, I am certain that her relations with her family members would be dramatically different.
Ask for what you want. No one likes to be led down a path and be ambushed. Asking for what you want and explaining why will help others understand your expectations and the reasoning behind the request. If they disagree with your request, then you will have a wonderful opportunity to explore their perspective. And who knows, perhaps you will learn something in the process. But you will likely not get what you want if you don’t ask.
Connecting requires that you communicate, come to know the individual with whom you are associating, and understand them. Simply, connecting requires that you know and are known. Using communication to control does not accomplish connection. Connection requires transparency and openness in not only revealing yourself but also in establishing sufficient safety that others will feel comfortable enough to reveal themselves in sharing things with us. Taking the time to connect with others will not only improve the quality of your relationships but will also vastly improve the quality of your results.
Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence? Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.” We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.
Earlier in the year I spent two days working with and teaching a number individuals helping them improve their ability to hold difficult conversations. After the session one of the organization’s directors who stopped by to observe said, “This is all well and good, but you know, you can’t teach a pig to sing!” I was taken back by this statement because not only was it a crude metaphor for the individuals who were honestly trying to increase their people-skills, but it was also allusion to his own lack of commitment to what others were trying to accomplish. I couldn’t help myself, so I said, “I guess that would depend on who is the pig and how good the singing has to be.” He promptly turned and left the room.
Sometimes we can become the greatest barrier to those who want to change something about their lives. We come to adopt a mental picture of people in certain situations and then we tend to continue to see them in that light. Because we are unaware of an individual’s internal struggles, challenges, or aspirations, we reject any attempt on their part to become anything other than what they have always been to us. Simply, we are not very forgiving nor are we accepting when people fall short of our expectations or when they want to change negative behavior.
We think, “I can’t teach a pig to sing.”
Here are some questions that will help you examine your own attitude and behavior toward those who are trying to learn to “sing” a new or different song:
What thoughts or judgments do you possess about those who are trying to change?
Examining your thoughts can be very revealing. In the example above, the director revealed his attitude toward those who were willing to try something new. I can’t help but wonder what effect that attitude had on those who might attempt something and not succeed the first time out. If you can become aware of your own negative thinking toward people and their efforts, perhaps you can challenge your thoughts or ask yourself if there is another more objective way to interpret the same set of facts.
How do you speak about others?
Someone wise once said that out of the heart, the mouth speaketh. What do your words reveal about your thoughts? Referring to people in derogatory and demeaning language says more about you than it does about them. If you can catch yourself speaking poorly about others, then you might explore the source of those thoughts and determine if they are serving you or others in a way that is uplifting and energizing.
Do you dump your doubts on others?
The way we speak to others about their performance may impact their willingness to continue with their efforts. Providing support and encouragement of any effort to improve will sustain people when they falter. It is also important to take the time and make the effort to offer suggestions or ideas that will help the individual. Your support can go a long way in helping an individual feel like the challenge of learning and its accompanying hurdles is worth the effort.
Are you willing to change and improve?
Sometimes our unwillingness to change hinders others from making an effort to do the same. Example is the great teacher. What other people experience as they observe your feelings, words, and actions tells them what is acceptable to you and what is not. Remember, in the absence of data people will interpret meaning in the worst possible way. If you are in a position of authority over others, they may not be willing to exceed or go beyond their perceptions of your thoughts and feelings. Many people will never attempt to rise above the example of their leaders.
Do you think you can’t, so you’ve decided you won’t?
When the director said what he did, I thought, “Of course you can teach an individual to sing.” What I also interpreted him to say was, either these people can’t do it or they won’t do it. I also wondered if he believed that he couldn’t so he wouldn’t try to help his people improve. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to explore that. However, what is obvious is that if you think you can’t, then you probably won’t make the attempt. I have found over the years that skill impacts will. When people have the skills and are confident in their ability to use their skills, then they will make the effort.
Can you let go of the past to move forward into the future?
Sometimes our history with certain people or with a particular organization can keep us from improving. We need to do a better job of identifying what is holding us back and take steps to do something that will propel us forward. You might ask yourself, “How fast will you allow yourself to change?” Only you can determine what you will do to improve.
Is your behavior consistent with your goals?
If the organization is encouraging everyone to improve the way people communicate, then any behavior or speech that runs contrary to that goal will not lead to the desired success. The culture of the organization can be negatively impacted by those few who outwardly oppose the efforts of the many. Doing whatever it takes to get on board and be supportive of others will contribute to the success of any change process.
What change would you like to see in yourself and others?
Being deliberate about what you would like to improve should lead you to take decisive action. Once you have identified a goal, then you can implement the plans that will result in the attainment of your goals. Helping others set specific goals, being supportive of the process, and holding them accountable will help them to be successful.
What is the cost of doing nothing?
When presented with opportunities to change, the easiest route is to agree and then do nothing. If you continue to do what you have always done, then you will continue to receive what you have always gotten. Unfortunately, people don’t usually change until the benefit for change outweighs the pain for doing so. Improving one’s people skills in any organization is paramount given that there is very little that isn’t impacted by how individuals communicate with one another. Counting the cost of your current results or the lack of results can be a great motivator to improve and change for the better.
There are opportunities all around us to improve our results and the results of others. We should be more engaged in taking responsibility for the outcomes we seek, rather than seeking self-justification for inaction based on whether the other person will learn how to sing or not. Success will come to those who make the attempt rather than those who condemn the efforts of others. Your words and actions are powerful. May I encourage you to lift and enliven the people around you.
I was stuck in Phoenix on the way to El Paso because of a malfunction on our aircraft. You know the drill. Everyone is on the plane and then they announce that something isn’t working. However, we were assured that the problem would be fixed after maintenance took a few moments to look things over and figure if they had the part they needed. Forty-five minutes later, the flight attendant announced that everyone would have to vacate the plane because the aircraft wasn’t going anywhere.
Next, the poor airline personnel tried to figure out what they were going to do with all the folks who were wondering if they would ever get to their destination before nightfall. Unfortunately the supervisor of three ticket agents became more agitated at her workers than the passengers were for the current inconvenience. In her frustration, she started criticizing the agents who were doing the best they could. As her emotion increased so did the number of personal attacks. She yelled, accused her people of being stupid, too slow, and generally falling in the category of subhuman human beings. The more her criticism and emotion increased, the more mistakes the agents made. It was clear that they were rattled beyond the point of being able to maintain their rational composure and didn’t know what to do to help remedy the situation.
This poor supervisor clearly flunked the interpersonal skills portion of her training in supervisor school. Perhaps such extreme behavior is more exception than the rule, but I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some tactics for dealing with those individuals who could use a course in emotional intelligence.
Don’t take it personally. I would offer that a person’s emotion says more about them than it does about you. Why? An individual’s “hot” emotional reaction is the product of their thinking or their perception based on something that they are observing. Unfortunately, when people are highly emotional, we know that the rational regions of their brain quit functioning. Consequently, they are not very good at clearly explaining in a respectful way what challenges need to be addressed. Remaining calm and detached from their response will help you to maintain your rationality during a tense situation.
Listen for the data. If someone is being super critical, listen for the data or facts that they are sharing. If there is a lack of specificity, ask for it. Without a clear understanding of their concerns, you may not understand the gravity of the situation, nor will you be able to take the necessary steps to achieve the expected results.
Paraphrase or summarize back. If you are not getting the specific direction that you need, try and paraphrase or summarize what you are hearing. Hopefully, hearing the lack of direction specifics will help your manager realize what they are saying. Recognizing they lack clear feedback will lead them to improve the quality of their message.
Ask for examples. When an individual’s message is unclear, asking for examples of what needs to be addressed and undertaken will help you understand the expectations you need to meet.
Be in control of your emotions. Do not let your emotions get the best of you. Often when a person’s emotional intensity has reached a fever pitch, there is the chance that others’ feelings will be raised to the same level as the individual who is upset. When this happens you may not be able to effectively communicate with the person who is trying to provide direction, and you may also end up dealing with others at this same level of negative emotional intensity.
Evaluate the message. If you are the recipient of the criticism or negative feedback, evaluate what you are hearing. Ask yourself if you agree, disagree, or if the information is accurate, whole or complete. If there is more data that needs to be considered and shared, organize your thoughts and be prepared to offer additional information at another time. If you agree with the criticism, acknowledge your effort or misstep and make the needed correction in your performance.
Pick the proper time and place. Confronting or offering your perspective in the heat of the moment is not a good idea, particularly in front of customers or other potentially impacted clientele. You will need to pick a time that is devoid of emotion and a place that is private to share your perspective and any additional data that needs to be considered.
Manage your expressions. If you are visibly upset at the feedback you are given in a hostile situation, this may serve to further irritate the person who is criticizing you. If you work with someone who frequently reacts emotionally, try to anticipate this behavior so that when it occurs, you will not be negatively influenced by it.
We would like to think that the type of behavior that I witnessed is not a common occurrence. However, we are all human, and sometimes negative situations get the best of us. Unfortunately, when we are on the receiving end of such a tirade, how we choose to respond can make all the difference in how the situation unfolds and resolves. Taking deliberate steps to manage this type of situation can help improve our working relationships and the quality of results that we ultimately achieve.
My uncle Mel passed away after living a wonderful life. He was one of those brave souls who fought in World War II and was lucky to make it home. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was a member of 87th Infantry Division that came up from the south on the west side of Bastogne. He was a lieutenant who was a company commander because the army was short of officers at the time.
He once told us of an experience where his commanding officer, a captain, ordered him and another company to take a hill where a suspected sniper nest was located. There was a valley that gently ascended until it reached the top of the hill. As he led his company up the middle of the valley, he began to have a very uneasy feeling. It dawned on him that where they were headed was subject to perfect grazing fire. “Grazing fire” refers to the fact that bullets sprayed down on them from the top of the hill would follow a course of about three feet off of the ground all the way down the hill. Anyone attempting to come up the hill would be easily shot and killed.
About half way up the hill, he decided to disobey orders and stop their ascent of the hill and go around the side of the valley and take the top of the hill from the back side. The other company commander disagreed and decided to continue the frontal assault of the hill. My uncle’s company was successful in taking the hill and capturing the sniper nest only after the snipers had killed everyone in the other unit. Although my uncle was chastised by command for disobeying orders, he was also awarded a citation for saving his company and taking the hill. His decision was the correct course of action in this situation.
This week in preparation for the celebration for the Fourth of July, I told my extended family Uncle Mel’s story at a family meeting and asked them, “Of all the freedoms that you enjoy, which do you value the most?” Here are their responses.
1. Freedom of choice. Of all the family members that I asked this question, this was the most frequent response. Our freedom to choose is to make a number of choices for which we are responsible. In other words, when we make a choice, we are then responsible for the consequences of that choice. This freedom allows us to answer for our actions. Everyone responded that they would rather have this freedom than allowing others to decide for them and then force them to do what they may not want to do.
2. Freedom of opportunity. A number of family members indicated that they loved the fact that they could make decisions about their future and then could work to achieve their dreams and goals through their own industry and commitment to what was most important to them.
3. Freedom of worship. Being able to worship who, how, where, and what they may was a preference of a few others. They were grateful that religious freedom was within the scope of the freedoms that everyone enjoys. And that everyone should have that opportunity without the ridicule and criticism of those who may not hold the same beliefs that they do.
4. Freedom of speech. I was surprised when my 13 year-old daughter said this was her most valued freedom. She indicated that although we are free to speak as we may desire, there seems to be more and more negative consequences that come because we may not believe or support certain causes that others do. She indicated that she hoped that there would be more tolerance and understanding of those with differing viewpoints. I was surprised by her sensitivity toward this freedom as a rather young person.
5. Freedom of association. This was expressed by my seven-year old daughter who referred to this freedom as the opportunity to play with her friends. Although this sounded so simple, after reflection, I thought that there are some places in the world where people or groups of people are not allowed to associate with those who are judged to be different. Being able to be with people of our choice is a freedom that we sometimes take for granted.
6. Freedom to work. Some in their early 20’s mentioned the opportunity to work in order to succeed. I remember a quote from Thomas Edison I heard in my youth, wherein he stated, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” I remembered my own optimism when I first heard this statement coming from one of the smartest individuals to ever live on the planet. I began to believe that perhaps it really was possible to accomplish one’s dreams if one was willing to sacrifice and work for what one wanted. I thought this sentiment was admirable coming from a younger person, when so many today seem to want to avoid the difficulty of sacrifice necessary to succeed.
7. Freedom to learn. In addition to the important freedoms mentioned above, I wanted to add this one to our list. I have noticed that many of the lessons in life seem to be repeatedly offered and taught until we learn the lesson that is necessary for us to learn. Some of those lessons can be quite painful, but once we learn them, they shape our character and our ability to lift and help others which strengthens and improves the quality of life for everyone.
There are many more freedoms that are worth our consideration. However, you must decide for yourself which freedom you will chose to celebrate this coming holiday. Wherever you are or in whatever country you find yourself, there are freedoms that are worth identifying and cherishing. I know that Uncle Mel’s freedom to choose and be responsible for his actions saved himself and the lives of others who impacted others within his generation. We should be appreciative of our freedoms and do all within our power to protect them for ourselves and others.
What makes difficult conversations so difficult? People are often afraid to talk about tough topics when they aren’t certain of the outcome. Sometimes they complain that they don’t even know how to begin, so they avoid it altogether. Or if they have tried to hold a hard conversation and it didn’t go well, they are reluctant to try again. This fear can be a powerful factor in preventing us from holding a necessary conversation, or at the very least, it limits us in how we broach the subject, keeping us from being effective.
We often refer to these less-than-successful attempts at holding a difficult conversation as fake talk. Why? Fake talk is often vague, misleading, indirect, or a misrepresentation of the real message. Consequently, conversations that encompass fake talk do not achieve the desired results. Think about how many conversations you have held thinking you have addressed a particular challenge, and yet, nothing changes.
On the other hand, REAL conversations create respect, build relationships, and achieve results. People come away feeling like they have been understood, and they are clear about what they need to do next. These conversations take place in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.
Here are 12 tips that will help you successfully talk about difficult topics.
- Prepare or beware. If you take a few minutes to think about the conversation that you need to hold, you increase the likelihood that the conversation will be more effective. Ask yourself the following questions to help you prepare: “What is the topic at hand?” “How might this person react to the topic?” “How does this person usually respond to feedback of any kind?” “What is the quality of my relationship with this person?” “What history from the past might impact this interaction?” Asking yourself these reflective questions will allow you to anticipate and prepare for the other person’s reaction.
- Check your assumptions. What we think about others gives rise to what we feel. Our feelings then fuel our actions–what we say and do. If you take a minute to ask yourself, “What am I thinking and feeling about this person in this situation?” you will surface your assumptions and feelings. If your feelings and thinking are negative or emotionally charged, then it would be better to wait to hold the conversation until you can work through your feelings and approach the situation more objectively. Otherwise, your assumptions and emotions will color the delivery of your message and will likely negatively affect the outcome.
- Identify your intent. It is important to establish the reason for holding the conversation. This allows you to focus specifically on what you want the outcome of your interaction to be. Having a clear intent for holding the conversation helps you to stay focused and not be distracted by the road blocks or issues raised by your listener to avoid talking about the topic at hand.
- Focus your listener’s attention. An effective way to do this is to share your intent and then follow it with an invitation to engage, such as, “I would like to talk about…. Can we do that?” Identifying the purpose for your conversation and inviting the other person to talk about it helps prepare them for the discussion and sets the proper tone.
It is important to keep your statement of intent neutral. For example, if someone had been rude in a meeting and you wanted to address their behavior, you wouldn’t want to start with, “I would like to talk about how you were a real jerk today in our meeting. Can we talk about that?” Such a statement puts the other person on the defensive and will prevent the conversation from going forward. However, saying, “I would like to talk about improving today’s meeting. Can we discuss that?” will pique their curiosity and gain their attention.
- Share facts first. Sharing the facts before your opinion is critical in a difficult conversation because the facts are what initially prompts a person’s reasoning. For example, if you said, “I noticed that when others were speaking, you interrupted them before they finished. I wonder if you realize the impact that had on the rest of the meeting.” Notice that the facts give rise to what a person will start to think about. If you lead with your opinion, they will likely discount or dismiss what you have to say. Sharing facts first will allow for a more reasonable response and avoid creating defensiveness in the other person.
- Ask questions to understand. Once you have shared your observations and your thinking, then you are free to say something like, “Help me understand what you were thinking in that situation.” Follow up with as many additional questions as needed to clarify your understanding. This requires that you suspend your judgment of the person and truly focus on understanding them.
- Summarize your understanding. After the person has answered your questions, take a minute to summarize your understanding. Share what you have learned about their point of view before offering your perspective. Then be sure to end with the question, “Is that right?” Or, “Is there anything I missed?” This provides the person with the opportunity to clarify and add any missing information.
- Create a solution. Once you have understood one another, it is time to create a solution for the challenge you identified. The solution should be mutually agreeable to both parties. This is the most important part of the conversation because it is the reason that you are talking about the issue at hand.
Some people like to identify a possible solution prior to holding the conversation. If this makes you feel more at ease, then definitely do so. However, after asking questions and listening to what the person is sharing, you will likely learn something more that will alter the solution that you previously identified.
- Gain commitment. Once the solution is defined, reaffirm both parties’ commitment to the agreed-upon solution. Watch the other person’s reaction as you ask for their commitment. If they hesitate or sigh, roll their eyes or avoid eye contact, seem disengaged, ambivalent, or upset, then you need to check their degree of commitment to the plan. Their behavior will tell you if something has been omitted and that more searching questions are needed to understand the situation more fully.
- Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. When sharing facts or your thoughts, using “I” will soften what you are saying. For example, notice the difference between, “I wondered if you have really thought this through,” as opposed to, “You haven’t really thought this through.” The first sentence puts the emphasis on your thinking, whereas the second example sounds more like an accusation that will put them on the defensive.
- Control your emotions. Sometimes when holding a difficult conversation, emotions will begin to emerge. If this happens, it is important to control your emotions for your message to be heard. If you can’t control your feelings, then the emotion becomes the message and the content of what you would like to say will be lost. If your feelings start to get the best of you, it would be better for you to acknowledge what is happening and postpone the conversation until you can remain composed.
- Be respectful. In order for your conversation to have the best results, you must be respectful in word, tone, and action. Being calm and in control of your delivery will help the other person to remain calm and at ease. Remember that some people interpret passion, elevated vocal levels, and animation as anger. Being respectful and courteous in what you say and do goes a long way toward contributing to the effectiveness of the conversation.
Holding successful difficult conversations is possible when you prepare for the conversation, identify your intent, gain the attention of your listener, and distinguish fact from opinion. Once you have done this, you are ready to ask questions, summarize your understanding, and build a plan for success. Lastly, speaking in a way that people can hear your message by controlling your emotions and being respectful will greatly improve your ability to talk about tough topics and lead to positive results.
P.S. I’m hosting a webinar tomorrow on “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.” Wouldn’t it be worth it to improve your emotional intelligence and increase your leadership capacity to manage yourself and others in difficult situations?