One night last week I woke up at 2:38 a.m. terrified. It wasn’t because my mother-in-law was arriving the next day to spend Thanksgiving with us. (I typically just throw up when that happens.)
No, this is a recurring dream of mine.
The nightmare always ends with me sitting straight up in bed trying to catch my breath, heart pounding, and sweating like I have malaria.
The scene: I am chilling at Starbucks enjoying a venti white chocolate mocha. I am deep into a good book or busy journaling–oblivious to the world around me–when suddenly, a random person joins me at my table.
Startled by the interruption, I am taken back a bit. Without exchanging any pleasantries, this person challenges me with the following three questions. The questions never change.
(1) Why did you embarrass me in front of my coworkers?
(2) You rated me superior on my evaluations, so how did you make the decision to let me go?
(3) I heard you knew that I wasn’t getting the promotion. Why didn’t you tell me?
And if I haven’t twitched enough in my dream to wake up by this point, the jovial, plump barista walks up and asks, “Does this apron make me look fat?”
I am squarely in the middle of a difficult conversation. And like most of you, I don’t want to be there.
Difficult conversations come at us from a variety of situations and settings, but they all share these common characteristics:
(1) Emotions are at 211 degrees Fahrenheit. For you science geeks out there, that is one degree below boiling. A primary reason we hate these conversations is that we are anxious that something we say or don’t say will bump up the emotions to 212 and everything will boil over.
(2) The content usually centers around these topics:
– What is going on? (The information is going to surprise, scare, or anger the recipient.)
– I have some bad news . . . (The information is going to hurt the recipient’s feelings.)
– I feel like I am under attack! (The information puts the recipient on the defensive.)
(3) We often feel inadequate or unprepared. While you have no control over (1) and (2) above, I think I can help you with (3).
The “trick” I use to make difficult conversations easier is . . . I draw.
Now, before you dismiss this notion, I understand your hesitation. When I suggest this tool for leaders, most are skeptical. Many worry that they cannot draw, or that drawing will lessen the impact of the conversation, or that the recipient will get confused by the technique and miss the reason for the conversation.
All legitimate concerns. And in my experience, all are paper tigers. (pun intended)
Let me show you what I mean. The following three examples are personal drawings that I have used with clients to work through difficult conversations. The conversations represent the three categories of difficult conversations mentioned earlier, and I will walk you through each resolution.
I. What is Going On?
The Scene: Leader A (my client) was having a hard time interacting with Leader B. Leader A felt unappreciated and excluded by Leader B and because they worked closely together, emotions were tense. I drew the following chart for Leader A and asked, “When things go wrong between you and Leader B, which is most disturbing? Do you wonder why it happened? Are you worried about the feelings these interactions generate? Or do you feel like Leader B wants you to be someone different (identity)?
The Solution: As you can see, Leader A felt that his identity was coming under attack with Leader B’s actions and it allowed me to drill down into the root cause of the issue. Leader A felt incompetent, bad, and really “unliked”when Leader B acted out. From that, we put a plan in place for interactions with Leader B.
II. I Have Some Bad News. . .
The Scene: A leader (my client) had to deliver the results of survey to a guest speaker. Overall the guest speaker was exceptional, but made one comment that a very important person in the audience (my client’s boss!) thought was inappropriate. My client was asked to relay the message.
The Solution: My client worried that her message would distract from what many thought was a very good presentation. I asked if the program evaluations backed up her assumption. The drawing above shows the outstanding marks the presenter received–26 out of 27 participates scored her “superior” or “very good” . . . but notice the one dot bubbled in. The drawing allowed my client to share to establish the entire interaction in a positive light while framing the information from the bubbled in dot as a learning point to improve future presentations.
III. I Feel Like I Am Under Attack!
The Scene: A leader (my client) felt his boss was misjudging his ability to perform a certain job. In fact, my client thought he was doing a good job, and was surprised by his boss’s assessment. So how do you tell your boss that he is wrong and needs to communicate better? Hint: Carefully.
The Solution: My client drew the first four pie wedges above (the ones with the check marks) to explain to his boss that he felt good about these areas of his work. He asked the boss if he agreed. He did. Then he drew the final two wedges and put a question mark in them, asking, “I sense that there are other aspects of my job that you think I can do better, but I want to make sure that we are seeing the same thing. What do you see?”
According to my client, and just about every client that I urge to use this technique, drawing the scenario for his boss did a curious thing. Drawing shifts the focus of the interaction between the two parties and places it squarely on the piece of paper.
I would rather have an exploratory colonoscopy instead of sitting knee to knee, face to face and deliver uncomfortable information. A drawing is a tangible distraction that diverts our attention. It makes the conversation easier for both parties.
Drawing accomplishes the first and foremost rule to diffuse difficult conversations. It makes them SAFE. Where there is safety, there is dialogue. Where there is dialogue, ideas are shared. When ideas are shared, there is trust.
Remember, cavemen effectively communicated through pictures before they knew how to spell out words!
Difficult conversations don’t have to be recurring nightmare for you. Have a pen and paper ready and just sketch out the problem as you see it while asking your cohort to add to it. Then, watch and be amazed!
In the meantime, sweet dreams.
Call To Action
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