Mastering ‘fierce’ conversations before the bell

We’ve all been there: a sleepless night and a head of full of worries. It’s not a budget review meeting or your annual appraisal but a tricky conversation with a difficult colleague that’s keeping you awake. Hayley Zimak finds out about the best approach SBMs can take when undertaking challenging conversations

Those who’ve attended one of Kate Hinchliffe’s workshops will have heard the story of Rob, the plumber who first prompted her to use the model she now swears by. “The tiling on the floor looked like an infant school project…I chewed over what to say to him all night.” Kate has modified the advice from Susan Scott’s book, Fierce Conversations and uses it in her daily life as well as in the workplace. Although the idea of challenging such a nice man was ‘horrific’ to her, she mustered the courage and delivered her opening statement first thing Monday morning. “Ten minutes later everything was fine; he was whistling like he always did and I was making him a cup of tea while the tiles were being sorted.”

Emotional intelligence

Kate, director of Impact First, says one of the most difficult conversations people have isn’t necessarily with someone they’re managing or managed by, but with a colleague who holds a similar position or role responsibility. “Sometimes it doesn’t even have a direct impact on them in terms of their workload; it’s just annoying to see a colleague who isn’t pulling their weight in the back office.”

She says the most common complaints include co-workers who aren’t doing their job properly, work that isn’t being delivered on time and quality of work which doesn’t meet expectations. “As Susan explains in her book ‘fierce’ is not about being angry; it’s about making the conversation count and creating change. It’s about being ‘emotionally intelligent’.”

She says identifying your ‘unique loading fingerprint’ is key. “We all have our own; mine is exaggerating. For example, ‘You always do this…’ or, ‘This is the hundredth time this has happened’ when in fact, it’s only been the second or third time.

“Then there’s the blaming fingerprint with a statement like, ‘This whole thing is your fault’ and the intimidating fingerprint with statements like, ‘I guess you don’t really value your job’ or ‘if you do this one more time…’”

It’s important to analyse your approach and to be aware that it may not be the most effective way of communicating with a peer. Kate says one common – and misguided – approach includes the ‘jam sandwich’ notion.

Kate follows the advice of Susan Scott:

  1. Name the issue
  2. Choose one clear example that demonstrates the problem
  3. Acknowledge your own emotions – it’s ok to show you’ve been affected by the behaviour
  4. Clarify what’s at stake – explain why the behaviour is important to you, your team or organisation
  5. Acknowledge your responsibility; have you ignored the issue and allowed it to persist, have you laughed or encouraged inappropriate behaviour?
  6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue
  7. Invite the person to respond and make it clear you’re setting out the facts as you understand them.

Jam sandwich

No, we’re not talking about your child’s favourite after-school snack but rather an unfortunate method that many find easier to adopt when offering or implying criticism to a colleague. “This is when people hide the challenging conversation in between two good points. You give some positive feedback – throw the bad bit in and then come back with more positives.”

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She believes the reason we use this approach is not to protect the other person, but ourselves instead. “We like to think of ourselves of nice people so we bury something that isn’t nice in the middle of some niceness. “I don’t think this is the best way to do it for two reasons; it’s confusing because the recipient doesn’t know what the real message is and it also diminishes the effect of positive feedback.”

Eat the frog

Instead of ‘jam sandwiching’ your concerns or lying in bed at 3am agonising over a prospective conversation there are more productive ways to prepare. “Rehearse what you’re going to say with a partner or trusted friend. Practice your speech in front of a mirror if it helps and make sure you’re comfortable and confident in what you want to say.”

Kate says the next thing to do is ‘eat the frog’ – not literally of course! “It’s the concept explored by Brian Tracy in his book of the same name; if you had to eat a frog every day, when would be the best time to do it? The answer is first thing in the morning because by the afternoon, the frog has gotten, bigger, slimier and uglier as you’ve been thinking about it all day.”

Tackle the tough chat first thing in the morning by asking your co-worker to speak in private and start with the 60-second opening gambit you practised the night before.

Final steps

After you’ve said your piece it’s time to listen. “Let the silence do the heavy lifting – people find that hard but you’ve invited them to respond so give them the space to do that,” Kate says. She also stresses the importance of “staying curious” throughout the following conversation. “People can be defensive because they’re upset but what I do is stick to questions so if someone comes back with a defensive statement I will just stay curious by asking them to tell me more, to explain why something hasn’t worked for them or why they’re struggling with the workload.”

Remember to be very clear with what you’re saying and to be as non-confrontational and objective as possible. It’s best to exude openness and understanding which includes a friendly facial expression and sitting with your arms unfolded. Once both stories are on the table, you can work on a solution to move forward.

Kate says once you get into the habit, and see the results, it becomes easier to do. “At first it’s really hard because it’s not a habit; it’s not a way you’re used to doing things. The first few times will be daunting but once you see the positive impact you’ll be able to build your confidence.”

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