7 Steps to Open a Difficult Dialogue

My coaching clients often identify issues that consistently drain their emotional energy. Many times, the issue involves another person, and the only way to resolve the issue is to have a conversation with that person. Unfortunately, few of us are adept, or even comfortable, beginning conversations that are going to be difficult.

Most of the time, it is a conversation my client dreads, which is totally understandable. Most of us aren’t trained to handle conflict, and we rarely see conflict done well. Every sitcom and reality show on television depends on people handling conflict poorly!

However, we can have productive conversations about disagreements that will actually strengthen our relationships. It takes a little courage if you don’t care for difficult conversations, but the results can be life-changing.

The key is to start the conversation well. Research shows that if we begin a conversation harshly, it will end harshly more than 90% of the time. The opening is crucial. We want to clearly state what we want to talk about in a nonconfrontational manner.

Besides courage, a little preparation will help. I often help clients get ready for difficult conversations, and we use an outline from the book Fierce Conversations. You can download a summary of the model on my website under the “Free Stuff” tab.

There are seven steps in the Confrontation Model in Fierce Conversations. I am not a fan of the name of the model, but it’s a great tool. Think of it as “Creating an Opening to a Conversation that Can Change Your Life for the Better.” We want to start a courageous conversation that will improve our relationship with someone else and also improve the quality of our lives.

OPENING STATEMENT. There are seven steps to create a succinct and nonthreatening opening statement. When we are done, we will have a complete introduction to the conversation that will take us only 60 seconds to say. It’s just a beginning, but it sets the tone. We don’t want to drone on and make the other person defensive. Once it’s written, we want to practice saying it out loud until we remember it easily. I role-play with my coaching clients until they are completely comfortable saying their opening statements.

Step 1. Name the issue. We start by clearly stating the behavior or issue that we want to talk about.

“I want to talk with you about the effect that [a specific behavior or situation] is having on [me, our family, the team, etc.].”

The key here is that we are clearly talking about the effect that the behavior or situation is having. We are talking about a specific outcome for a specific situation or behavior.

Sometimes there are several issues that we want to discuss. Pick the one that would improve your life the most if resolved. When I work with clients, sometimes we find a theme once we start discussing the various behaviors and situations.

For example, if an employee has had several poor interactions with several clients, we don’t want to talk about just one instance; we want to discuss their poor customer service skills.

Step 2. Select a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change. We want to give specific examples of the situation or behavior that we’ve described in Step 1. The example gives the other person a clear picture of the focus for the discussion.

“For example, yesterday…”

The entire opening statement will only be 60 seconds long, so we want to be succinct. If we give a long litany of the person’s misdeeds, they will check out of the conversation. We want to give a couple of very short examples of the behavior or situations.

In our customer service example, we would say something like, “For example, ABC Company said that you are not returning their calls. In addition, the representative from XYZ reported that you gave them outdated information then got defensive and raised your voice when she asked for current information.”

Step 3. Describe your emotions about this issue. Every discussion has a fact and a feeling part. We often ignore the feeling part, but we have to deal with both in order to resolve any conflict. In addition, sharing our emotions makes the conversation personal because we show some vulnerability. It’s okay to say that we are angry about something as long as we say it calmly.

This step reminds me of a simple formula for “I statements” that my children learned from their first grade teacher. She taught them to say,

“When you [do this] it makes me feel [emotion].” It was simple enough for first graders and very effective because it kept the children from blaming and name-calling. It’s a skill and sentence that we could all use more often!

“I am feeling [frustrated, embarrassed, not appreciated, etc.].”

In our example, we could say, “I am concerned about keeping our customers and afraid we are losing our reputation for caring about our customers.”

Step 4. Clarify what is at stake. If the situation continues as it is, what will be lost or gained? This step is often left out, and it’s important that everyone know what is at stake if nothing changes.

We are telling the other person why this is important. We don’t want our statements to sound threatening. The goal is to make the outcomes for the current behavior or situation very clear.

“This is what is at stake…”

In our example we could say, “There is a great deal at stake right now. Our reputation as a company that is responsive to customer needs is in danger. Our customer service is what differentiates us from our competition, and if we lose our reputation, it could substantially affect our financial goals.”

Step 5. Identify your contribution to this problem. We don’t have to give a long confession here. Remember, we only have 60 seconds for the entire opening statement. However, we want to acknowledge any role that we have played in creating the problem. We also want to make clear our intention to do something about it.

“I lost my temper.” Or “I haven’t spoken up.”

One of the most common contributions is not communicating clear expectations. Susan Scott mentions it in Fierce Conversations, and I see it with my clients, as well. Another contribution I see often is people not speaking up when they are first upset. They let the situation fester until they can’t stand it anymore. It’s better to speak up in the beginning and have a truthful conversation about what’s bothering you.

In our example, we could say, “I noticed your poor interaction with customers earlier and should have spoken to you immediately.” Or we might say, “I don’t feel that I have clearly communicated our customer service standards and why they are crucial to our company’s success.”

If we truly don’t believe that we have contributed in any way, we can leave this step out.

Step 6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue. Assure the person that you aren’t blaming or complaining; you want to figure out how to make it better together.

“This is what I want to resolve with you: [restate the issue].”

We want to show that our intent is figure out a way to fix or improve the situation. When we restate the issue, we are keeping the focus on the one thing that we want to talk about.

In our example, we could say, “I want to resolve the issue of your poor customer service actions so that we can keep meet our customers’ needs in a positive way.” In this example, we are letting our employee know that we are not planning to fire him or her. We want to find a way to help them be successful.

Step 7. Invite the other person to respond. Once we finish our 60-second opening statement, we want to give the other person a chance to respond. The opening statement was just the beginning of the conversation.

“I want to understand what is happening from your perspective. Please talk to me about what is going on.”

To our customer service-challenged employee, we could say, “Please give me your perspective on your customer interactions.” We want to hear about any obstacles or circumstances that are getting in the way. Remember, we are looking for ways to improve the situation.

Important note: If the other person tries to interrupt you before you finish with the 60-second opening statement, ask them to let you finish. Tell them it will only take 60 seconds and then you want to hear what he or she has to say.

Now we go through the rest of the Conversation Outline: Discover and Share > Develop Solutions > Agree > Close. Discover and Share is the most important step. We want to use active listening skills be sure to ask about the fact and feeling parts of the issue. We want to be sure that the other person feels confident that we understand and acknowledge his or her positions, interests, and feelings before we move on to Develop Solutions.

Once we agree on a solution, we want to discuss what we have learned and where we are now in the Agree step. We want to be sure to clearly define who is doing what by when.

In Close, we ask if there is anything else that needs to be said and express gratitude for the person for working through the challenge or issue with us.

During the conversation, people will often try to assign blame or change subjects. Our job is to keep the conversation on-topic. If a person says, “Well, they should have come to me with that information,” we would respond with, “We are here to talk about your interaction with customers.” Calmly refuse to get sidetracked.

When discussing conversations that need to happen with coaching clients, they often tell me that the other person won’t be able to handle the discussion or that talking with him or her won’t help. First, the alternative to not having the conversation is to continue to endure a situation that is causing stress and draining emotional energy. Second, we really don’t know how it will turn out until we try. The other person may get emotional. That’s okay! It is perfectly alright for people to feel strong emotions. We don’t need to protect them from that – or run from it. It takes some courage, but we can witness someone feeling strong emotions. In coaching, we call it standing in the lion’s roar. I love that metaphor.

I want to add one caveat. I find that most people are reasonable human beings who will engage in a productive conversation if given the invitation and circumstances that make them feel safe to engage in a dialogue. Effective conflict involves telling others what we think and feel. We must be a little vulnerable, and most people are willing to do that. However, there are a few mean-spirited people out there whose goal is cause harm. It isn’t a misunderstanding; it’s an attack.

If you can, let those people go. If you can’t, document every conversation. At work it is especially important to get everything that you can in writing. Send an email summary of the conversation and ask for the other person to confirm that you understood everything correctly. Whatever the circumstance, do your best to keep the negative meanies from stealing your joy. They are not worth it.

Most of the time, we can improve our lives by easing tension and removing energy drains with some preparation, determination, and courage. Grab some support if you need it, and know that no matter the outcome, the conversation is usually worth it.

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Author: Kathy Stoddard Torrey, Leadership Coach

Kathy has been a life and leadership coach for more than a decade. Her mission is to help people define and create success.

Credentials: Masters in Business Administration, University of Texas at Austin; Associate Certified Coach, International Coach Federation; Organization and Relationship System Certified Coach, CRR Global; Co-Active Professional Certified Coach, Coaches Training Institute; Bachelor of Journalism (Public Relations), University of Texas at Austin