Friday, 22 April 2016

SPEAK WISE: Just get on with the Tough Conversations!

There are many among us who tend to shy away from hard and unpleasant conversations. We secretly hope that other people ‘get the message’ somehow. It may seem ‘easier’ than taking the trouble of telling them and upsetting them. We like being liked after all. What a relief it can be when problems miraculously get fixed on their own!

Inability to express unpopular opinions and tough messages can make you look weak and unsure. You may even be seen as a pushover. If left unaddressed, it has the potential to damage us in many ways. Especially when we discount our own priorities and best interests for the sake of “peace” in relationships. The biggest danger is that it may lead to poor self-esteem, and plenty of stress that gets bottled up.

The problem may be seen in personal and professional domains of life. In this article, we’ll look specifically at our professional relationships.

Maybe you face this problem while interacting with direct reports. For some, it may be peers or higher-ups. Others struggle to assertively disagree with customers and business associates. And then there are some who bottle up all that anger and negative feelings. This can’t go on forever; A point is reached where they snap, and how! The melodrama of the moment can be nerve-wracking to everyone around.

Well, the modern workplace is only getting more complex, and your organization is typically working with partners, customers and staff around the globe. Some of you manage virtual teams, which is simplifying and complicating things at the same time. There may even be some cultural influences. Asian societies for instance have a preference for high-context communication styles. We may like unpleasant messages to be inferred whenever possible. We like to be in the goods books of others, especially elders and peers. We’ve always cherished our polite deferential mannerisms, haven't we, especially in South Asia?

Having said that, most of us loathe the feeling of not being in control, and being perceived as weak. You don't want to be seen as lacking self-esteem and self-worth. The good news is that you can change these habits with some persistence. Potential rewards overshadow the pain in a big way. Avoiding the pain may seem an easy way out for the time being, but can be self-sabotaging in the long run.

But, the problem is that most of us aren't trained in doing this properly. And what’s worse, we may also be lacking in having a wide choice of role models in our organizations across varied relatable contexts and roles.

Firmness is a celebrated trait, alright. But do we sometimes confuse firmness with the “almost boorish” behaviour of so-called “tough” bosses? Many of you have seen people “getting results” by being “tough” on them who may otherwise “shirk work”. We may have normalized such dysfunctional behaviors without realizing the huge costs involved. Over a period of time, the toxicity unleashed by these interactions becomes part of the system. We may even assume that this is how it works! 

Luckily, each one of us knows at least a few honorable exceptions. They stay calm and centred, are very effective in marshaling important facts, use carefully chosen words, refuse to easily get drawn into a reactive mode, express their displeasure succinctly, listen carefully, and still guide the conversation to effective outcomes. They speak with candour, and are adept at spotting evasive replies, and know how to regain the focus pretty well. And most importantly, they make sure that they don't leave the other person feeling miserable and crushed at the end. And you know, that stands out for sure. Even when you’ve been at the receiving end, you walk away with a feeling that you were given a fair hearing as well. Is it tact or is there a strategy at work here? And more importantly, is it all that tough to be like those few much-admired folks?

For leaders, developing this skill is of paramount importance. Each move of yours is being watched by others in challenging situations. People admire bosses who are approachable yet firm, setting the pace with a clear and unflappable demeanor. It inspires confidence, trust and a sense of purpose that motivates them to pull in their weight with enthusiasm. They are looking up to you for direction and eagerly want the reassurance that they’ll be in safe hands when the going gets tough.

That sense of direction also requires you to define exacting standards. As captain of the ship, your team is looking at you to be the flag-bearer for those standards. An overly affiliative leadership style may not be the best way to go about doing it. You will need to deal with deviations by administering some truth-serum shots and liberal doses of plain-speaking! But, Wait! Don’t rush off with wild abandon, overplaying your hand while doing this. Many ill-prepared leaders have burnt their fingers and bridges with their temper tantrums. They’re blissfully unaware of the ripple effect of their emotions (good and bad, more so the latter) on team morale and even results in the long term.

The “SPEAK WISE” Model may give you some useful answers and ideas! Use it whenever you want to have a round of productive hard-talk that leaves you and others in a better place.

1. Stick to Facts
2. Pause and Proceed: Timing and context Matters
3. Emotional Stability
4. Align for Rapport, not People Pleasing!
5. Keep it Authentic
6. Ward off Defensiveness
7. Install the Future!:  Outcome & Future Orientation
8. Secure Commitment to Action

9. Enable Change: Follow-up Structure

Stick to Facts

Ensure that you gather all important facts before talking to the person. What is the situation at the moment? What was the expectation, and what is the gap? Is there something worse likely to happen? Is the problem less severe than you had feared? Are your assumptions valid, or is there something missing? What has gone right? Are there any positives that stand out?
Getting yourself up-to-date with all important facts ensures that you get a thorough understanding of the issues at hand. Also, this exercise allows you to slow down and reflect better, rather than flying off the handle!

Pause and Proceed: Timing and context Matters

Are you sure you are picking the right time for the discussion? Is it important to have it right away, or can it wait? Where do you want the discussion to take place? In your workspace/office or in a neutral venue, like a conference room, or cafeteria (when no one’s around)? Give it serious thought. Sometimes, a neutral place can be less intimidating, and the person might just feel more open to a productive discussion. After all, that’s what you want as well, right?

Emotional Stability

If Steps 1) and 2) are done properly, you’ve already given some time for your emotions to stabilize. It is important that you stay as unflappable as possible. High-voltage emotional outbursts can damage the work environment, with all that toxicity. Become aware of typical triggers (words, statements, expressions, non-verbal communication) that pull you into negative states. Count to 10, and breathe deeply before you respond. Give a little time to your rational brain to take over. You’ll manage pretty well! For more ideas, check out my recent article on Emotional Self-Regulation. Click Here

Align for Rapport, not People Pleasing!

You want to be taken seriously, and that is all very well indeed. But don’t take it too far with those nasty expressions. Without going to the other extreme of appearing timid and eager to please people, you can and must find a way to transact this interaction in a professional manner. It is important that effective rapport is maintained. Look into the person’s eyes, and speak calmly. The impact will be far more than those weird neck rotations and shrill outbursts. Be respectful and get on with the communication, period! I had written about “Presence” in my Article on building “Everyday Trust” . Check it out for ideas on building rapport. Click Here 

Keep it Authentic

Once you have the rapport in place, go direct to the message. Be very liberal with facts. It may help if you first let them share their perspective, before revealing your mind. Don't hesitate to acknowledge positives. Maybe they have done a few things right, but goofed up on something critical. Tell them specifically that you are happy about the positives. Now, steer the conversation to the main issue.

Explore on the following lines:

  • What was the expectation?
  • Where are we now? What is the current reality?
  • What is the gap?

It may be a good idea to have the information summarized on a piece of paper or on your whiteboard (if the latter is available). Later in the discussion, if emotions run high, this snapshot can be an anchor point you can come back to!
Once both pictures are out in the open, tell them how it has impacted you.

Share clearly how you feel about it:

Has it made you disappointed, worried, annoyed, angry? Give a label to your emotions, and state it like this. “I am feeling disappointed(or any other emotion) because of this gap <explain the gap with clear facts>". Tell them you are disappointed at what has happened. It is not about the person, but about the situation. Avoid hiding behind highfalutin jargon! Lesser syllables and simple grammar works best!
Note that you are putting the emphasis on how the situation has made you feel.
This is not something they can contradict, as you are only telling them how you are impacted by the situation.

Special Tip: You can use a few moments of silence very powerfully at times. Give a long pause at some places, and then put across the next point even more strongly. You’ll soon realize there is no need for shouting at the top of your voice. In fact, stable speech delivery with some clever use of silence is the way to go!

The keyword to keep in mind is candor. Free and frank discussion of the issue at hand is what is needed. Launching a verbal tirade might make you feel valiant for a short while, but this victory is going to be so pyrrhic and delusional you’d rather do away with it altogether. If you are extremely angry and upset, just say it in so many words, in plain simple language. They’ll “get” it.

Ward off Defensiveness

In spite of taking so much care, people may tend to feel very upset, and become defensive. If this happens, first remember that it is a natural reaction. We may have also done the same in our own lives in different situations. So, first stop looking at them as some lowly inferior beings that deserve contempt! Maybe the person has made genuine efforts and still not succeeded. Or they have not done enough, and the guilt is being covered up by defensive behavior. In any case, do not fall into this trap, and start reacting on the spur of the moment. If the person has actually not given his/her best shot, it serves their agenda to divert the issue and go off on a tangent with you!

Keep bringing them back to the facts and the keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand. More importantly, you want the situation to be retrieved. Refer that sheet of paper or white board in point number 5). You can quickly go back to the facts without much hassle!

Install the Future!:  Outcome & Future Orientation

If you’ve managed reasonably well so far, good! It keeps you both in a helpful state of mind to figure out the way forward. Now, do you see how wasteful it would be if the previous sections were marred by emotional outbursts and one-upmanship? Wouldn't that be setting the wrong tempo when you reach here? After all, you want the best solution to help you retrieve the situation. That ain’t happening with negativity in the air.

Compare the expected outcome and the current reality. Explore multiple ideas and options that can help you bridge the gap. What are the dependencies that need to be sorted out? While you’re at it, it also helps to clearly state the consequences of not resolving the issue. What will happen if this is not addressed? This is where you can state potential consequences clearly. Maybe the issue is extremely serious, and one more mistake could mean many heads will roll. Clarify unambiguously which heads will roll if you think that's important. With so much effort in setting the context, they’re ready for this message at this stage!

For some more ideas, check out my Article on “Engaged Execution”. Check the section “An Engaged Buy-in: Laying the Foundation”. Click Here 

Secure Commitment to Action

Get clear commitments so that they sign up for doing whatever is needed. You may want them to work extra hours, or contact people for help, learn something new… If your discussion is with a peer or even a higher-up, make sure you get written (e-mail) commitments on what will be done to make progress. 

Enable Change: Follow-up Structure

It is also important to agree on the follow-up tracking mechanism to ensure sufficient progress. Be it periodic meetings, discussions, email updates… Ensure that there is a support system that can prevent the issue from falling off the radar. This will also help you watch out for dysfunctional behaviour and take remedies before it is too late!

Congratulations, go ahead and SPEAK WISE.


  1. Very well framed and these are indeed practical and key pointers to Speak wise . Thanks for publishing this helpful and persuasive blog Suresh :) . Look forward for more on similar lines ..