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Turning Difficult Discussions Into Constructive Conversations
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How to Set the Stage For a Constructive Conversation:
What to Do Before You Ever Say a Word

By David Lee
Reprinted from The Employment Times, May 8, 2006
What you do BEFORE you talk with someone about a difficult issue will largely determine what happens DURING the conversation. How you spend your "thought time" prior to talking with that person has a huge impact on the other "make or break" moment of truth -- how the conversation begins.

If you spend your time thinking about the other person's evil intentions - real or imagined -- and getting outraged, if you spend your time ruminating about unpleasant things they have done or unpleasant conversations you've had with them, you're likely to enter the conversation in a negative emotional state and with an antagonistic attitude. Doing so obviously reduces the odds that you will begin the conversation in a skillful, productive manner.

Because the way we begin a difficult discussion has a huge impact on whether the conversation goes well, we want to make sure we get the opening right. Getting the opening right requires getting into a productive emotional state and mind-set beforehand, and thinking things through clearly first.

Doing this, though, doesn't come naturally for most of us. When we're upset with someone or nervous about talking with them, we're far more likely to spend our time getting even more angry or nervous. It takes conscious effort and a rational game plan to offset this natural tendency. In this article, we will identify strategies you can use that will help you:

  • Challenge irrational thought processes that reduce your effectiveness and make you miserable.
  • Identify hidden agendas you might have that virtually doom the discussion before it ever begins
  • Get into a productive, rational mind-set
  • Think strategically, rather than emotionally
  • Set the stage for a conversation filled with goodwill and understanding

In the first section, you will find questions that will help you identify whether you are engaging in thoughts and an agenda that could set you up for failure. In the second section, you'll find suggestions for actions that will increase the odds the conversation will go well.

Questions To Ask Yourself
As You Think About The Other Person and The Upcoming Conversation

  1. Are You Mind Reading? - Mind reading is when we take our guesses about a person's motivation, agenda, or intention as the truth - and then take action based on our assumptions. Since we can't know what's going on in another's mind, our guesses are just that and nothing more - guesses, not facts. They may be dead right, and they may be dead wrong. When we assume our guesses are facts, rather than simply guesses, we can set ourselves up for unnecessary conflict by going into the conversation with a combative, antagonistic mind-set that might be based on a totally incorrect perception. We also exact a significant emotional toll on ourselves if we get ourselves worked up my Mind Reading (e.g. "I know exactly what he's trying to do! Who does he think he is. Well he's not going to get away with it.").
  2. Are You Fortune Telling? - Fortune Telling is a cousin of Mind Reading. Instead of taking our analysis of a person as fact, Fortune Telling is taking our predictions of what will happen as fact (e.g. "I know exactly what she's going to say," "I know what will happen if I bring that up.") Just as with Mind Reading, Fortune Telling can set us up for unnecessary conflict by leading us to enter the conversation in a confrontational mood. It also sets us up for unnecessary emotional wear and tear if our Fortune Telling involves "seeing" an unpleasant conversation ending off with disastrous results.
  3. Are you indulging yourself in self-righteous outrage? - Often Mind Reading and Fortune Telling lead to self-righteous indignation ("She's doing that just to be passive-aggressive! I am so tired of her game-playing! I don't have time for this! Now I've got to get into it with her. and she's just going to deny that anything is going on. She's just going to say I'm being paranoid.") Although it might feel good -- in a perverse kind of way -- to feel self-righteously indignant, the strain it puts on us both emotionally and physically make it a costly indulgence. The stress biochemicals we produce by being in this state causes tremendous physical wear and tear. Self-righteous outrage -- like resentment -- is, as the old saying goes: "Like drinking a poison hoping to kill someone else." We're the ones who pay the price. Self-righteous outrage also puts us into an angry, resentful emotional state, hardly an optimal frame of mind to engage someone in a productive conversation.
  4. What's your goal? - Asking ourselves about our goal, what we hope the conversation will accomplish, helps us identify and eliminate unproductive, antagonism-generating agendas. If our goal is to tell someone off, show them why they're wrong, or other win/lose agendas, we set the stage for an unproductive, antagonistic interaction. When we're in the midst of such an agenda-driven interaction, it's often hard to see that. To help you identify possible unproductive intentions, ask yourself if your goal is to:

    • Tell them off and set them straight?
    • Help them see why you're right and they're wrong?
    • Get your way?
    • Understand their perspective and help them understand yours?
    • Achieve a win/win solution (if applicable)?
  5. Are you willing to hear an alternative perspective .and maybe find out your perspective is off base? - When we're very upset with someone, especially if we believe they've mistreated us, it's easy to get invested in seeing ourselves as right and the other person as wrong. Sometimes when we're in that mode, we don't want to hear anything that might dislodge us from our self-righteous perspective. Although it may feel good to see ourselves as right or blameless, if it makes us unwilling to get potentially useful input and feedback, its an expensive indulgence. A clue to how sincere we are about engaging in a constructive conversation is whether we are willing to get a third party's perspective - even if it ends up being very different from ours. We'll explore putting this into action in the next section.

      Actions to Take

    1. Focus on trying to understand the other person's perspective. - "Seek first to understand" is the antidote to Mind Reading, Fortune Telling, and indulging in self-righteous outrage. By devoting part of your preparation time on "seeking first to understand," you're more likely to generate a balanced, reasonable perspective. Also, because we can't think two thoughts at the same time, when we're engaging in a compassionate examination of what it might be like from the other person's point of view, we are not spending time engaging in Mind Reading, Fortune Telling, and self-righteous indignation. Seeking to understand is different from Mind Reading. When we seek to understand, we recognize that our assessment - no matter how well-founded -- is still an opinion, a guess, and not a fact.
    2. If you're really upset, vent to someone you trust - or several if necessary - until the emotional charge has been reduced to a workable level. - Doing this allows you to calm down enough to get into a more moderate emotional state, and thus allows you to see the situation from a more rational, untainted perspective. Having "blown off some steam", you are more capable of entering the conversation in a neutral or even positive emotional state. Neglecting this step and trying to talk to the person while you're upset makes it likely you'll instantly trigger defensiveness in the other person. Keep in mind that the goal of venting is not to disparage the other person and make them look bad. It's to discharge negative emotions -- not build more. If we vent in a mean spirited way, putting down the other person and consciously trying to make them look bad, we only create more negative emotions in ourselves, which hurts us physiologically and hurts our chances of a having a constructive conversation.
    3. Ask someone you trust and respect for their perspective. - When we're upset, our emotions can distort our perceptions. We can remedy this by getting someone else's perspective. Because they're not emotionally involved, they're able to see the situation in a more measured, rational way. If you do ask for someone's perspective, make sure you really want it. As mentioned previously, we can measure how sincere we are about wanting to perceive the situation accurately - rather than indulge ourselves in self-righteous indignation - by our willingness to hear a neutral party's perspective..even if it's different from ours.
    4. Ask for feedback on how you propose to bring up the conversation - Ask one or more people whom you respect and trust how they would respond if you brought up the issue to them in the way you're thinking of doing. Give them some background about yourself and the other person and ask them how they think the other person might respond to your opening. If they have concerns about how you are proposing to bring up the issue, ask for their suggestions on how you might do it in a more effective way. This step is especially important for conversations with people you are upset with, because your proposed opening is likely to be more heavy handed than necessary.
    5. If appropriate and possible, make some deposits in your Goodwill Bank Account with that person by doing something kind, generous, or thoughtful. - When there's goodwill between two people, they're more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt. They're more likely to enter a difficult discussion with a willingness to hear the other person's point of view, and they're more likely to want to work things out collaboratively. One way of conceptualizing this is to think of a Goodwill Bank Account between you and every other person you interact with. For some people, that Goodwill Bank Account is abundant, with others, there's little or nothing in the account.

      If you inadvertently make a withdrawal by being inconsiderate or grouchy to someone with whom your Goodwill Bank Account is full, you still have plenty in the account. That mistake or oversight doesn't deplete your account with them. Because of that, the other person is willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and let it go.

      However, if your Goodwill Bank Account is near empty - or even in the red - any withdrawal will result in a "bounced goodwill check." In this situation, the other person has no interest in giving you the benefit of the doubt, hearing your point of view, or working collaboratively.

      Thus, to increase the odds that your conversation will go well, think of ways you can make deposits in your Goodwill Bank Account with that person. Simple examples of making Goodwill Bank Deposits include: paying someone a sincere compliment, doing them a favor, offering to help them out rather than waiting for them to ask you. By doing this, you're not only making deposits in your Goodwill Bank Account with that person, you're also modeling a more mature, evolved way of being.

      This practice can be hard if you're very angry with them. It can also be difficult if you've spent a lifetime indulging in self-righteous outrage or seeing yourself as victim. Because both life stances are counterproductive, for that reason alone, making deposits in your Goodwill Bank Account with the other person is a helpful practice.
    6. If appropriate and possible, see if you can engage the person in one or more positive interactions before addressing difficult issues. - Besides making deposits in your Goodwill Bank Account with the other person, think about other ways of engaging them in positive interactions. This is especially important if the two of you have a history of primarily negative interactions. If we have that kind of history with someone, they associate negative emotions with us, just as we do with them. Thus, our mere presence probably puts them in a negative emotional state, just as theirs does with us.

      To offset the negative associations they have toward you and dealing with you, try to build some positive associations by having positive interactions. Such interactions don't have to be big or dramatic. In fact, the simpler and more understated, the more likely they will be received as genuine. It can be a short conversation about their favorite team or asking them about their kids.

      By taking the time to have positive interactions with them, you increase the odds they'll enter the important conversation in a more positive emotional and attitudinal state. Returning to the point about your actions being perceived as genuine. make sure they truly are genuine. If you do a favor or make small talk purely as a strategy for "warming them up" so you can have a productive conversation, they're likely to pick up on your insincerity. If you don't yet sincerely want to understand and respect their point of view or you harbor strong negative feelings toward them, your first task is to do the work that will get you into a more charitable frame of mind. That is one of the reasons why it's so important to discharge negative feelings and challenge Mind Reading, Fortune Telling, and self-righteous indignation.

      If we don't do that work first, engaging the other person in a positive interaction will be nothing more than a calculated manipulation. When we no longer see the person as an enemy or out to get us, when we sincerely do want to bridge the gap, our efforts to create positive interactions will be sincere and genuine. and the other person will pick up on that.
    7. If you catch yourself Mind Reading, Fortune Telling, or indulging in self-righteous indignation, stop. - Remind yourself that Mind Reading and Fortune Telling are irrational thought processes - unless you have special powers, you can't know what's going on in another's mind nor can you foretell the future. Even if your guesses ARE dead on, even if you have a right to be outraged, you're the one who pays the price, as mentioned previously.
    8. Make the Law of Reciprocity your ally. - People tend to reciprocate. If we're generous, they're more likely to be generous towards us. If the person you need to talk with believes you're trying to show them they're wrong, they'll reciprocate by trying to show you that you're wrong. If you genuinely want to understand their point of view, they're more likely to want to understand yours. Keep this principle in mind by reminding yourself that "what you put out is what you get back."

Taking the Next Step

To get some practice using these questions and actions, pick some of the difficult conversations or difficult people in your life and apply them to these conversations and people. For ideas on how to start the conversation off effectively, see my earlier article How to Start a Difficult Discussion Off Right: The "Declaration Followed By Invitation" Format at

About the Author: David Lee is an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance. He is the author of Managing Employee Stress and Safety, as well as dozens of articles on employee and organizational performance that have been published in trade journals and books in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. For information on his programs and service, click here.

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