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. The note read, “Hi Honey! I hope you understand that it’s not personal, but I don’t want to see you tonight!” 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 quickly sprang from what I hoped would be my temporary sleeping arrangement 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’m not packing heat … this morning. 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 things popped into my head – one from my mother and one from Jack Welch. A quick calculation determined that mother-in-law advice would be met with resistance this morning, so I went with Jack Welch.
Principle #1 for emotional conversations – Wallow in it. Jack Welch shared this wisdom with one of his executives who was quickly solving people problems without considering the people involved. Instead, he urged her to spend time developing perspective. His advice? Wallow in it. So I gave it a shot.
“Sorry about last night.” I offered. “Were you mad?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I was 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. I was in full wallow now. We had just reached a tipping point. All emotional conversations do. It usually occurs after the problem has been defined or discovered and both parties are sitting there staring at the white elephant in the room, which brings us to:
Principle #2 for emotional conversations – Restate the obvious.
My wife had just revealed her issue with me and all the emotions wrapped around it. And it hung in the air, right there in our kitchen waiting for me to do something. So I simply repeated back what she said to me, “OK, now I get it. You are not mad at me because I forgot our date night, you are mad because I chose to do something else instead…and, rightfully so, that upsets you more than me just forgetting.” When emotions are simmering or boiling over, it is extremely helpful to validate the other person’s feelings. The result of this may not be total disarmament, but you now have groundwork for a peace treaty, which brings us to the final point:
Principle #3 for emotional conversations – Leave with a shared understanding
When the conversation began that morning in the kitchen, my understanding of the night before and my wife’s understanding of the night before were at odds. I didn’t think she should take my actions personally, she did. What we brought to the kitchen table was important, but what we took out of the kitchen was critical. Even a dumb consultant like me could see that. “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,” and she went on to tell me what to do for future reference. 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, “two words for you – Lorena Bobbitt.” (FREE BLOG ADVICE – just nod if ever in a similar circumstance…which I did.)
Even in situations where the outcome cannot be mutually satisfying, such as employee termination, leaders can still use these steps to minimize emotional conversations.
- Wallowing in the issue helps it take form.
- Validating feelings calms the storm.
- And leaving with a shared understanding establishes the norm.
A good method for taking the difficult out of difficult conversations. And if you don’t agree, leave a comment. I won’t take it personally; after all, it’s just business.