Stop me if you’ve heard this one before … “I hope you understand that it’s not personal, it’s just business.” I tried that once on my wife to explain my reason for entertaining clients instead of taking her on a scheduled date night. When I came home later, I found a note on top of a neatly folded blanket on our living room couch.
What made me shiver was not the cold night I was about to spend on the couch, but that each letter in the note was cut out of different magazines—there was obviously malice involved here. I slept with one eye open that night.
What my wife taught me, and this is a BLOG SPOILER ALERT – is that it is always personal!
So let’s be real for a second. Only a very few people at the tail of the bell curve actually enjoy having difficult conversations. For the rest of us in the middle, these type of interactions cause more anxiety than a middle school dance. (My palms still get sweaty when I hear REO Speedwagon.)
Dan Ariely’s research reveals that all of us have a very difficult time separating fact from feeling. Our decisions, and our communications, are embedded in the context of emotions—even those decisions we categorize as “logical.” So what do we do? We do our best to out maneuver, suppress, or hide from those unpredictable, unwanted emotions that often surface in difficult conversations.
So, back to our story…
Early the next morning, I heard my wife rummaging around in the kitchen. I sprang from the couch and hurried in to see her. She had her back to me as she loaded the coffee maker.
“Good morning!” I said, careful not to sound too cheery like I had a great time the night before, but not too somber to give the appearance of faking it. I gently patted her shoulders with both hands, and then patted her waist.
She dead panned, “I have no weapons on me. I take it you got my note?”
Relieved that she was unarmed, I said, “Yep. It must have taken you awhile to cut out all those letters.” I followed my clever quip with a nervous laugh. She wasn’t buying it. “I had plenty of time to myself,” she replied.
I reminded her that last night’s clients were important to my future--our future. If I was successful with these clients, future opportunities would come my way. Her reply? “I don’t care! You promised me a date night!” I was not getting off to a good start.
Just then, two pieces of advice popped into my head – one from my mother and one from Jack Welch. Considering the circumstances, I went with Jack Welch.
Principle #1 for emotional conversations – Wallow in it. Long-time CEO at GE, Jack Welch once urged his leaders to spend time developing perspective. His advice? Wallow in the problem. Take time to see all sides without becoming defensive.
“Sorry about last night.” I offered. “Are you mad?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I am mad!” she said, her voice rising.
“What made you the most upset?” I replied.
And then, I got a lecture on time management, being inconsiderate, and valuing others over her. But I didn’t wilt with her cross-examination. I kept wallowing. “So were you more angry, frustrated, or sad that we missed our evening together?” Then, surprisingly, as she moved through each emotion one by one, her voice softened and the conversation turned. We had just reached a tipping point. All emotional conversations will, but to get to that point, you must wallow in the problem.
Principle #2 for emotional conversations – Restate the obvious.
Smoldering emotional conversations can become flammable, especially if one assumes what the other party is thinking. Instead, avoid a flashpoint by validating the other person’s feelings. I said, "I get it. You aren't mad at me for entertaining clients, you are upset because it feels like I chose them over you?" "Yep." (Side note: one word answers will not expand until the date is rescheduled.)
Principle #3 for emotional conversations – Leave with a shared understanding
When the conversation began that morning in the kitchen, I didn’t think Christy would take my actions personally--she did. Even a dumb consultant like me figured that out. “So,” I said, “is there any way we could have handled this where both of us are happy?”
“Probably not. I would have still been hacked off at you for backing out, but let’s do this next time . . .” Bingo. We had our shared understanding going forward.
She obviously felt better because she was buttering a piece of toast for me. I noticed a wry grin as she handed me the plate and pointed the knife at me, “But, if you ever do that again,” she said, “I have two words for you – Lorena Bobbitt.”
While I do not endorse her method to resolve difficult conversations, I understood it. For a more subtle and workplace appropriate approach, use my advice above. And if you don’t agree, leave a comment. I won’t take it personally; after all, it’s just business.