Saturday, July 12, 2014

Get the Win You Want Most In a Difficult Situation


Giving corrective feedback or telling someone something they don’t want to hear isn't easy and it’s difficult to see how you can get the win you want if you value the relationship with the person you are delivering difficult news to. But, it’s not as painful as it appears when you learn how to watch out for a few signals that indicate you're making it harder than it is. The good news is the signals come from you. The bad news is, the signals come from you and they’re not always easy for you to see. Just remember the people you interact with can see them.


The other day, a friend of mine asked me to help her write up a disciplinary action. There are a few things I know about my friend. For one, she has a powerful aversion for conflict. She wanted help with a few specific sections of the form before she had the difficult discussion with the employee. I was glad to see she was taking the time to prepare and happy to help.

As we worked, I noticed two tendencies which signified my friend was making the process harder on herself than it needed to be:

1.       Each time we made definitive statements about the expectations of the employee going forward, she would verbalize counter-arguments as if she knew what the employee would say in response. For example, as we worked on communicating her expectations for the employee I’d suggest a statement like, “If you would like guidance and support in rebuilding and sustaining professional working relationships with your colleagues who were affected by this incident, please feel free to contact us. Any conversations relating to these efforts will be kept strictly confidential.” As soon as she finished typing the statement she put down her hands, her shoulders sagged, and she said, “She’s not going to believe me, because everybody was talking about this incident.” I sensed she was rationalizing to give herself an excuse to avoid saying what she needed to say because she couldn't craft a message the employee would accept outright. This signal indicated my friend wascompromising her message with logic confounded by her aversion to conflict. There is no way to deliver a difficult message that will be accepted without resistance.

2.       When it was time to communicate the consequence of the employee’s actions in the incident, she would tangent to another topic that appeared to be related, but wasn’t.  For example, I'd ask my friend what she wanted to do and she'd tell me about how she believed the incident negatively affected other employees rather than answer the question directly. I could tell she was evading the question because once she stated the consequence she'd be compelled to follow through and deliver it. Saying things about what you intend to do out loud to other people commits you that way. Her avoidance to clearly state the consequence was a signal that my friend was placing more value on maintaining the status quo in her relationship with the employee than on holding her accountable for her unacceptable behaviors.


Regarding my friend's concern that the message wouldn’t be one hundred percent valid in the employee’s eyes, I asked, “Was everybody talking about the incident because you leaked the information you gathered in your discussions with the people involved? Or, was it because several of the employees you interviewed talked about it with their coworkers even though you'd asked them not to?” 

She indicated the correct answer was the latter. I asked her if she recognized she couldn't control what other people said. Sure, the integrity of the investigation was compromised by some other employees and that was an unfortunate fact. However, that fact didn't compromise my friend’s personal integrity or her ability to make logical decisions going forward. She processed my questions and I watched as she moved her hands back to the keyboard as if prepared to continue.

I steered the conversation back to the part of the exercise she'd been avoiding and asked my friend how she wanted to communicate the consequence to the employee. She gave me two half-answers. “Half of me just wants to tell her she will need to fix the relationships she’s damaged and move on. The other half believes this should be a written warning.”

I replied, “In my opinion, the facts you’ve gathered indicate her behaviors warrant a written warning and she needs to take responsibility for mending the relationships if she truly wants to be a valued and productive member of her team. Tell me why you can't give her both of those messages?”

“Hmmmm, I can, but...”


My friend forgot what win she wanted most when she became distracted by rationalizations driven by her aversion to conflict. I believe my friend cares very deeply about creating a culture where conflict can be resolved. She wants people to be able to negotiate through disagreements and work with each other productively. She wants people to see her as a person who consistently provides them with the support they need to resolve conflicts. She wants the organization to have great teams comprised of good people who know how to work off each other’s strengths. I believe she wants all of those great things.

So, what was holding my friend back from delivering the difficult message that was critical to getting the employee back on track? What was keeping her from making an effective decision on the consequence? Her aversion to conflict drove her to seek the path that would create no friction between her and the employee. In addition to all of the great things she wanted for the organization, my friend also wanted the employee to like what she had to say and in this case the only way to accomplish that was to avoid delivering the message that was needed most. Her avoidance and rationalization were leading her toward the win she didn't really want because it wasn't really a win, it only looked like one.

I asked her, “What do you want more in this situation, to help her understand that she needs to change how she reacts to other employees in order to continue to work here, or, what you think will make her walk away feeling good about you?”

I watched as my friend thought about the question. She sat up a little more straight, “I want her to hear and understand that she needs to change.”

I nodded, “Always remember that every situation represents a value-proposition for everyone involved. In other words, everyone wants to get the win they think they want. Right now, you need to decide what win you want the most. Yes, it’s nice when people are happy with you, it certainly sounds like a win. But do you believe it’s a win if you need to compromise the principles you believe in to get it? What kind of problems will you create by focusing your efforts on making sure she'll like you when she walks away from the conversation? Is that really the win you want?”
She thought about that for a second. 

“I get all that. But, how can upsetting her make things better?”

“Your task is to deliver a message that will help the organization get better. Focus on the message you need her to hear and you'll end up with a win either way. If she accepts the consequences and makes the changes she needs to, her team gets better. If she doesn’t accept the consequences and your expectations, it means her values don’t align with the culture you want. She may decide to leave or she may eventually get terminated if she doesn’t change her behaviors in which case her team still gets better. So, what message do you want her to hear?”

She didn't answer me with spoken words. The sound the keyboard buttons made as her fingers typed told me which win she wanted most. 

Another thing I know about my friend is she does not lack the courage to do what she believes in. Conviction creates the power to overcome fear.  

I could tell she no longer wanted to pursue the impossible task of trying to make sure the employee liked her at the cost of the principles she believed in. She needed to give the employee the opportunity to decide whether she wanted to make the changes necessary to be a valued member of her team. By choosing the win she really wanted, my friend found the will to disrupt the status quo and compel the employee to change how she interacted with her team in positive ways. As I left my friend to her work, I noticed she was sitting up straight in her chair, exuding the kind of confidence that can only come with conviction.


Having difficult conversations is never easy because they force you to change the status quo for yourself and the other person. Following these simple steps can help you make it as easy as it possibly can be:

1.       Prepare- Do this consistently. The worst results I've reaped in difficult conversations always occurred when I wasn't prepared. Always go to Step #2 anytime you find yourself in a difficult situation and don't respond until you have prepared by following all of these steps. You always want to respond as quickly as possible but it is so important to know your response can lead to the win you want. In other words, don't dilly-dally to avoid, but take the time to prepare so you can act with conviction.

2.       Define the Problem- Conflict occurs when two or more parties seek value propositions which are either at odds with each other in principle (values are not aligned as evidenced by words, actions or behaviors) or in situations where there are not enough resources to satisfy everyone’s desires. Think:
  • What value-proposition is at stake for you?
  • For the other party?
3.       Define the value-proposition you seek- Before you enter the fray make sure the battle is worth fighting. Ask yourself, “What result do I really want and willgetting it in the manner I’m planning align with my own values?
  • If the answer to the second part of the question is, “Yes,” then you know you can proceed to Step #4 with conviction.
  • If the answer to the second part of the question is, “No,” then go back to Step #2; keep thinking about the problem, the value-proposition you want and your plan. If you can't ever get to a “Yes,” then ask yourself if you're seeking something you really don't want. Don't make things worse by continuing to Step #4 until you are willing to get what you want without compromising your values. Otherwise, you'll be on a path to doing something you'll regret.
4.       Define the message you need the other party to hear- Write it down! Here are a few options, you determine which method will work best in your situation:
  • Memory- I recommend this option least. Conflicts are stressful. There is a high probability you will not remember exactly what you want to say if you rely only on your memory. Use this option only as a last resort.
  • Bullet Points- Use this option if you feel confident enough to speak clearly while using an outline to guide you through the points you need to make in a stressful conversation. At the very least, you'll have the cues you need to remember each point you need to make.
  • Prepared Statement- Writing out the statement you need the other party to hear can help you think through not only what you want to say but how you can say it most directly and effectively. When you have the time, this is a great way to craft the exact message you want to deliver.
    • Avoiding any particular point of the message?
    • Rationalizing based on how you believe the person will respond?

      These are signals that you may not have true conviction in the value-proposition your efforts have been driving toward. Go back to Step #3. Keep thinking.
5.       Deliver the message- You’re prepared. So say what you mean.
  • Be clear and concise- If you wrote out a statement, the best approach might be to just read it to them. This approach may feel awkward but the main point is to deliver the message, isn't it? I've done this more than once and although I have to admit it always feels strange to read my statement to the other party, the approach has saved me from making things worse each time. The point is to stay on message and avoid adding distracting statements. The biggest mistakes I've made in delivering constructive feedback has been when I've tried to add language to try and make the person feel better or to justify some parts of the message. I learned not to assume what parts of my message they will disagree with or question and to focus on delivering it. I wait for them to respond because only then can I know exactly what part(s) they take issue with.
  • Don't be distracted- It’s difficult not to become distracted from the message you really
    want to deliver while preparing. The previous steps are designed to prevent you from trying to rationalize how you will respond to the things the other parties may say. They probably will take issue with at least one of your points though.

Remember, your purpose is to deliver your message.  Don't let them distract you from it. It’s the win you really want. You need them to hear it but you don't need them to agree with it.

If after you’ve made your points you find they still disagree remember, you will have other opportunities in the future to come to an agreement if you keep the avenues for discussion open. This isn't easy because difficult conversations are stressful and your natural tendency is to end the conversation as quickly as possible. However, it’s important not to stifle the conversation because that will only leave the conflict unresolved. Unresolved conflict doesn't go away, it festers.

Learning to be calm and think clearly in uncomfortable situations is critical. Here are a few options you can use to end the conversation. The key is to acknowledge when the conflict is unresolved and that you intend to return to it.:
  1. If they don't agree with your facts- Say, “There are two sides to every story, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and perception is reality. I'm delivering this message based on the information I've gathered. Since you don't agree with it, I suggest we continue this discussion later after we've both had a chance to check our facts.” Then, end the conversation as concisely as possible and go back to Step #1 so you can continue the conversation with conviction.
  2. If they don't agree with your message because they're not getting the value-proposition they sought or expected- You can say, “I understand if you don't agree with the outcome. It’s important for you to think about whether the direction we're taking is acceptable to you. Only you can decide that. What I need is for you to understand the message I'm delivering to you clearly, do you?” 
    If they say, “Yes,” then go back to Option 1, above.
    If they say, “No,” give them an opportunity to ask questions but don't let them distract you from the message, just listen and try to learn what they specifically disagree with or don't understand to so you can address them directly.

    If they try to distract the conversation from your main points then say, “We can address that issue if needed after we've resolved this one. Can we get back on topic?”

    Remain vigilant of your frustration level.

    If things get too stressful and you're concerned you're going to lose your composure or give in just to relieve the tension, go to option 1, above, as a way to keep the conversation going without compromising your position.
  3. If they understand and agree with you- That means the value-propositions you both seek are aligned. This is the win both of you want most! Continue the conversation. Focus on how you can work together to create a magical mutually beneficial relationship.
These five simple steps provide the framework which will allow you to think and act as 
logically as possible in relation to what you value most and the results you really want when you're forced to deal with a difficult situation. 
Oh, by the way, you'll always be forced to deal with difficult situations. 

Finding Success
Get the win you really want and 
Follow the steps consistently and you'll notice three things will happen:
1.       You will get incrementally better at communicating with others because you will learn how to become less susceptible to the stress created by difficult conversations.

2.       You will need to respond to incrementally fewer conflicts over time because you’ve resolved problems versus merely creating the illusion that you have.

       Teamwork will improve incrementally. The culture will improve incrementally.

Incremental progress is continuous improvement, each step a change from the status quo.


Tom Eakin
Success Engineer, BoomLife

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