Q: Sometimes difficult situations arise unexpectedly and there doesn’t seem to be time to think through how to use the DialogueWORKS framework. In other words, when I am “outside” the conversation I have time to prepare what I want to say and how I want to say it, but when I am “inside” the conversation, things seem to happen too quickly. How can I become more effective at holding a difficult or emotional conversation when I am “inside” the conversation?
A: What a great question! Taking the time to prepare for a difficult conversation vastly increases the likelihood that the outcome will be positive. But as you realize, the real challenge of your skills occurs when you are confronted spontaneously with a challenging situation. Here are a few suggestions that will help you when you find yourself “inside” a challenging conversation.
Internalize the DialogueWORKS Framework
Right now, while you are still outside the conversation, internalize the process: Initiate, Discover, Connect, and Build. Know what happens in each phase of the model. Remember that in Initiation you share facts and interpretations, and in Discovery you ask questions to increase your understanding. In the Connection phase you summarize values and expectations. Then you finish the conversation in the Building phase, where you agree upon a plan and gain commitment. Once you have internalized this framework, you will always know where you are in the conversation and where you want to go next.
Listen for the Facts
Difficult conversations that occur unexpectedly often tend to begin with some kind of accusation:
“You never get this right!”
“I can’t count on you for anything!”
“Are you just stupid or what?!”
Notice that these criticisms, judgments, or inflammatory statements are all interpretations. The speaker has assigned some meaning—their own interpretation—to whatever facts actually exists. In order to resolve the situation, you will want to ask questions that uncover the facts. You might use questions like these:
“Give me an example of…”
“Tell me specifically what I did…”
“Review for me….”
Remember that you are listening for the facts. If you don’t hear facts, keep asking questions until you know what the other person observed or experienced and what has formed the basis of the judgment they are laying at your feet.
If the person is defensive or emotional, reflect their emotion and then follow with a question. For example:
“I can see you’re upset (reflect). What is going on?”
Remember that a person’s emotion masks or hides what is really going on in their head. When you reflect a person’s emotion back to them, it actually lessens their emotional state. In other words, they become less angry or upset. When the emotion itself subsides, it becomes possible to explore what is really at the heart of the issue.
Interestingly, studies have shown that asking “thinking” questions after reflecting emotion turns on a different part of the brain and switches off the part of the brain that is giving energy to the emotional state. Asking questions is one of the simplest ways to defuse emotional reaction within ourselves and others. Luckily we humans have the ability to activate different thinking pathways in the brain by making a deliberate effort to do so.
Summarize What You Have Heard
Once you believe that you have heard and comprehended what the person has said, summarize to them what you have understood. Don’t worry about being wrong; if you have misunderstood, the person will likely correct you, and they will appreciate the attempt you are making to clearly understand their perspective.
Build a Plan
Once you have reached the point where you both understand the issue, work together to create a plan that will fix the problem or address the upsetting behavior. Be clear about expectations regarding who will do what by when or about which behaviors you need to stop, start, or continue in order for you both to achieve the desired results.
Notice that the points above incorporate all four aspects: Initiate Discover, Connect, and Build. It is very, very important that you get the DialogueWORKS framework for holding conversations firmly in your head. You need to practice the framework and the skills that are encompassed by it every day. If you do, you will find that it doesn’t matter if you are “outside” or “inside” the conversation—you will always know what to do and where to go to make your conversations really WORK.