I had to have a difficult conversation. I was invited to deliver a training for the organizational development team at a large U.S. tech company. At the last minute the company said they wanted one of their facilitators to partner with me. I was already at the site, and I could see they wanted to give this person (let's call him Max) some experience, and I said OK.
I explained to Max how to follow my lead. I indicated where he could be of assistance, and asked him to otherwise be an observer of the group. Things went well for a while, but soon Max began to add content, most of which seemed designed to show his expertise but wasn't relevant. When I asked a question of the group, Max spoke instead, taking a "front of the room" position and expanding on the topic.
At the break I decided to talk with Max. I should tell you first that confronting people is not my favorite thing. My default style in conflict is to accommodate. But there was a job to do here, a group experience at stake, and objectives to be met. A strong purpose to protect the training experience propelled me to speak.
Working on Yourself Alone
AND... I needed to do something first. I needed to work on myself--to determine what was triggering my strong emotions of anger and frustration (This person should know better!). In my new book, Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace, Chapter 1 is titled "Work On Yourself Alone" because without doing some inner work, it's hard to resolve conflict, whether it is your own or you're helping others.
Turn Enemies Into Allies offers practices and attitudes to increase your power and presence under pressure, as well as attitudes that diminish it. With Max, I used these:
Instead of assuming Max was trying to take over my training, what if I reframed his actions. Maybe Max is worried about how he's going to look in front of his peers and his boss. He's trying to share what he knows so he can look good.
The reframing helped me become less judgmental of Max. Poor guy, he's been thrown into the deep end and is trying to stay afloat. I realized there may be other ways to view this situation than the one I see.
Curiosity and Inquiry
Is this the first time he's been asked to support a presenter? I wonder if he's ever done this before.
He's probably doing the best he can under the circumstances. He needs some encouragement and direction.
Metaskills for Difficult Conversations
According to process work leaders and authors, Amy and Arnold Mindell, metaskills are the background attitudes that guide any intervention. Metaskills raise your awareness of the nonverbal signals you might be giving out. If I approach Max with compassion (a metaskill), he will feel supported by the conversation. If, on the other hand, I approach with an attitude of frustration or disdain, he may feel put down, and he'll be less likely to hear me. As my friend and partner in process work, Joy Jacobs, writes: "The same basic skill applied with different background attitudes leads to very different effects.
The most powerful metaskill is my ability to observe and communicate with myself--to recognize my attitude and "work on myself" in order to develop and choose the attitude that will best help me hold the conversation and achieve the result I'm looking for.
Blending and Redirecting
So at the break, I invited Max into a conversation. I entered with non-judgment, compassion and curiosity. I started with inquiry (How was he feeling about how things were going? When did he find out he was going to be involved today?) and showed appreciation that he was doing what he thought was helpful.
In aikido, this is called "blending". I aligned with his energy. Then I redirected it.
I said that while I appreciated his desire to be of support to the group, some of his contributions were taking us off track. It would be more helpful to wait until I asked for his suggestions about how the skills could be applied in the workplace. This is where his expertise would be especially useful. He seemed happy to have specific direction, and agreed to wait for me to give him an opening to offer input. Things went very well after that.
Do you have a "difficult" conversation you've been putting off? How might you work on yourself to reframe it into a "learning" conversation, as Doug Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen suggest in Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.
What attitude do you have toward the other person? Can you shift it to make the conversation easier to hold? Are you able to observe and communicate with yourself as you hold the conversation?
In the waiting room of my health care provider hangs a quotation from Plato over two centuries old: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." It's not just me who's having a hard time in this conversation. Maybe they're scared, too. It doesn't have to be "difficult" if I decide I might learn something in the process, and if I enter with a metaskill or two.
P.S. There are more conflict and communication skills like this one in my new book: Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace, available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.