Eight Ways to Get a Difficult Conversation Back on Track
by Monique Valcour
Despite our best intentions, conversations can frequently veer into difficult territory, producing frustration, resentment, and wasted time and effort. Take David, one of my coaching clients. Recently appointed to a business school leadership role, he was eager to advance his strategic agenda. Doing so required building his team members’ commitment to and sense of ownership over the proposed changes. When people were slow to step up and take on key tasks and roles, David felt frustrated by what he saw as their unwillingness to assume responsibility.
For example, when he spoke with Leela, the head of the school’s specialized online master’s degree programs, he shared his plan to increase enrollment in these programs to boost revenue. He believed that the programs could accommodate 20% more students at the same staffing level with no loss of student satisfaction; Leela disagreed. David argued, and when Leela pushed back with concerns and counterarguments, he batted them away. Nothing got resolved. David believed that if he “won” an argument—through logic, force, or stamina—that meant his conversational partner had accepted his argument and would proceed to act upon their agreement. Instead, his team members left unconvinced and uncommitted.
David’s conversational inflexibility made it nearly impossible for him to lead change. Instead of motivating and facilitating progress, he exasperated and exhausted his team.
To have more-effective conversations, he needed to add more tools to his conversational toolbox and learn to use them skillfully. David put into practice the following eight strategies, all of which you can use to get conversations back on track and then move them forward.
Shift the relationship from opposition to partnership
In the midst of a difficult conversation, it’s easy to see your conversational partner as your opponent. Try repositioning yourself—both mentally and physically—to be side by side with the other person, so that you’re focused on the same problem. David told me that trying to convince his team to follow him felt like trying to break into a fortified castle. “How are you trying to get in?” I asked. “I’m trying to break through the wall with a battering ram. It’s the only way in!” he said. David realized that instead of approaching conversations like a frontal assault on a guarded building, it was better to knock politely on the castle door, where he was more likely to be welcomed inside. He now uses the metaphor of “coming around to the same side of the table” to remind himself to seek to build an alliance when a conversation gets stuck.
Reframe your purpose from convincing to learning
Conversations often go off track when we try to get someone to adopt our view or approach. When our purpose is to make another person see things our way, they are likely to resist—and arguing blocks learning and sends conversations into a ditch. No matter how well spoken and logical we may be, we can’t understand and solve the problem without exploring how the other person sees it. Whenever David fixated on persuasion as his conversational objective, he became ineffective. As Leela explained, “There’s a lot David doesn’t understand. It would be better if he would work with us rather than trying to ram his plans through, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in learning about our experience and expertise.” Consciously shifting into a learning mode helps us gain the insight we need to be creative, to collaborate, and to move the conversation forward. Loosen your grip on your own viewpoint, at least temporarily, so that you can make space to take in your partner’s. David employs the mental trick of being a fly on the wall, a neutral, objective third party who’s witnessing the conversation. From that mental perch, he’s not trying to convince and he doesn’t have the urge to defend his viewpoint. He doesn’t feel invested in either side, so he can accurately see what and how each is communicating.
Verbalize your intention
Transparency helps facilitate productive conversations. Share your purpose and what you hope to achieve with your partner. For example, you might say, “I’d like each of us to get all of our concerns out on the table, so that we can be confident we’re not missing anything.” Ask what they’d like to get out of the conversation. Be explicit, not just about the topic and desired outcome of the conversation but also about process. For example, David said, “I want to remain open-minded and nonjudgmental. Will you let me know if I slip up at this?”
Ask someone who’s just had a difficult conversation what went wrong, and they’ll likely describe what they believe was in the other person’s mind: “He’s totally focused on his own career and couldn’t care less whether the team succeeds.” Or, “She’s after my job. She wants me to fail.” The assumptions we make about another person’s intentions usually reveal more about ourselves than about what’s going on in their mind. Making assumptions also limits our effectiveness because it prevents us from fully understanding the situation and narrows the range of solutions we consider.
Examine the other person’s perspective with openness and curiosity
To understand your conversational partner’s perspective, switch off defensiveness and turn on curiosity. Avoid asking leading questions such as, “You don’t want to become known as the difficult person in the office, do you?” Rather, try asking open-ended questions like these: “How does this affect you?” “What’s at stake for you?” “What is this conversation like for you?” “What do I need to understand?” “What would help us to get on the same page?” Thank them for their responses without rebutting what they’ve said.
Acknowledge your part
It’s very easy to identify what the other person has done wrong, and much harder to identify one’s own contribution to the problem. But acknowledging your part demonstrates how to take responsibility and encourages others to do the same. By asking open-ended questions and listening with detachment, David came to see that his desire for fast results led him to cut off discussion too quickly, giving his conversational partners the impression that he wasn’t interested in their ideas.
University of Washington psychologist John Gottman identified four communication behaviors that derail conversations so consistently that he refers to them as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” With a mnemonic modification to Gottman’s formulation, I teach clients to avoid torpedoing conversations by “learning your A-BCDs,” by which I mean learning to Avoid Blame, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. In the absence of Leela’s enthusiasm for his plan, David rolled his eyes with exasperation (an expression of contempt) and barked, “Oh, come on. How are we supposed to get things moving if you won’t take on responsibility?” Here he was blaming her for the delay, while she still felt he hadn’t heard or responded to her concerns. When she raised her eyebrows at his outburst, he realized that he’d slipped up on his stated intention to remain open-minded during the conversation, which he acknowledged with a self-deprecating “oops.”
Defensiveness shows up when we deny responsibility for our own contribution to the difficult conversation. Leela contended that David should involve an assistant dean in the planning process. David felt defensive at what he interpreted as a suggestion that he was cutting out important players. He said, “If we have to talk with everyone, we’ll never get anywhere.” By defending his approach with a blanket statement about how involving more people will block progress, he signaled that he’s not open to input on how to move the process along.
Stonewalling can take a number of forms, including passivity, avoiding a certain topic, refusal to participate in or contribute to discussion, or withholding relevant information. If you find yourself engaging in any of these behaviors, refocus on what you’re trying to achieve and remember that examining difficult issues with openness and curiosity, while sometimes uncomfortable, is key to having productive conversations. Discuss the four behaviors with your team and agree that you’ll hold each other accountable for avoiding them.
Seek input to problem-solving
Humans are motivated to preserve and protect our self-image, so feedback can be difficult to receive. We tend to reject information that threatens our identity (such as, “The customer reports that you were impatient and uninformed”) and, therefore, we don’t learn from it. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith recommends the simple and effective practice of “feedforward.” Instead of digging into what has happened in the past, tell the person what you hope to learn or achieve, and ask them for their suggestions. For example, David eventually asked Leela, “What can I do to invite greater participation in the change process?” She was so surprised the first time he tried this that it took her a few minutes to respond. Then she said, “I think it would help if, before moving to a decision, you ask if there’s anything else anyone would like to add and give people time to respond.” David appreciated the suggested tactic and added it to his tool kit.
Practicing any of these techniques will increase your ability to have productive conversations about even the most difficult or contentious issues. Then try out a second technique. The goal is to incorporate all eight into your repertoire, increasing your conversational agility and improving your ability to influence anyone.
Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, May 22, 2017 (product #H03NA4).