Cover of "Failure to Communicate: How Con...

Failure to Communicate:  How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do To Right Them by Holly Weeks.   Holly Weeks writes an excellent book on having difficult conversations with others.  In particular, she focuses on hard talks when the two parties may not be well-meaning and where there might not be an opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding.  She identifies hard talks as ones in which the participants may have a combat mentality, conversations that might be emotionally loaded, and talks where it may be hard to read what is happening.  I have previously discussed Sarah Green’s terrific presentation Difficult Conversations:  Nine Common Mistakes in which she highlights the main points of Holly’s book and so in this post I just want to touch on some of the particularly powerful contributions Holly makes.

Parkour Traceurs

In a difficult conversation, Holly recommends acting like a parkour traceur.   It can be difficult to keep one’s balance and not be carried away by one’s emotions during the course of a difficult conversation.   A parkour traceur moves through the landscape maintaining his skill and balance while moving through a landscape full of surprises using leaps, vaults, rolls and landings to overcome obstacles.

By viewing conversations as a landscape with obstacles that need to be dodged or overcome, one moves out of an emotionally charged space into one where one sees the conversation as a set of tactical challenges.  Instead of being caught in a “fight or flight” mode, one plans, strategizes and engages the thinking and planning part of the brain instead of being emotionally hijacked during the conversation.

 Thwarting ploys

Holly identifies actions that a counterpart takes in a difficult conversation as a thwarting ploy.  Holly’s identification of thwarting ploys is one of the best insights in her book.  For example, one thwarting ploy is when someone makes a derogatory remark and then explains it as “just kidding.”  Simply by putting a name to these actions is a huge step towards being able to address them.  By identifying and naming these tactics, one de-personalizes them, turns them into obstacles to overcome, and by doing so helps one move toward a resolution.  Instead of describing these situations as someone just being a jerk or being insensitive, it is a thwarting play that requires a leap, vault or roll to move on.

Maintain Balance — Respect Yourself and Respect Your Counterpart

For me, the best advice in Holly’s book was her recommendation to maintain balance – to respect yourself and respect your counterpart.  The response to difficult conversations can often be one of two extremes – aggressiveness or capitulation.  Neither is particularly useful at moving the conversation forward.  You need to respect yourself and not let someone else walk over you and you should respect your counterpart and not walk over them either.  Not only does Holly suggest that you maintain balance, she provides examples of difficult conversations and what people could say to help maintain the balance.  While each situation is different, the following are some of Holly’s suggestions on what to say in the middle of difficult conversations.  For me, these are the best take-aways from the book.

  1. I was thinking that _____________ and I realize that I didn’t know how you saw it.
  2. I can hear your points better at lower volume.
  3. Your take is different from mine.
  4. I can see how you took what I said the way you did.  That wasn’t what I meant.  Let me try again.
  5. I’m not the enemy.  I’m on your side
  6. I’ve been blindsided by what’s said.  I need some time to pull my thoughts together.
  7. I know you want to be ______________ but my mind works better when _______________
  8. You don’t agree with me on this but here’s where I come out when I weigh the pros and cons.
  9. With customers you are the best, but internally you are not and that gives me a problem.  That gives both of us a problem.
  10. I don’t want to push back, but agreeing doesn’t seem right either.
  11. I feel that there’s a perception that we don’t work as hard or that were not as diligent…
  12. I want you to know how important it is with me professionally to ________________. I want this to be constructive and fair to both of us.
  13. This gives me a problem because I want to talk about issues that I don’t think you have heard before.
  14. I think it will be hard for you to hear.
  15. We want to try a new approach but it has to be a joint approach.
  16. If it doesn’t work for your on your side and our side then it won’t work for the ……… either.
  17. I don’t know if you’re challenging me or just pushing back on the issue.
  18. I’ve worked in ___________ for a long time and I’ve never heard anything like this.  Your opinion is very different from mine.  This is important to me.  But I had such a negative reaction to what you just said that I want to collect my thoughts and get back to you.

I highly recommend Holly’s book.

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