If you are a CEO, you will have hard conversations with your people, board, investors, shareholders sooner or later. [Love a good cliche in the morning, no?]
The nature of the conversation isn’t really important. What is important is how you prepare for it.
Pro tip: The preparation for a hard conversation will have more impact on the outcome than the actual conversation because it will set the nature of the conversation.
Here are some rules to follow:
1. Conflict — Recognize that hard conversations are created by conflict. Do not shy from the conflict. In fact, lean into it.
Understand that your objective is to resolve this conflict. If you conclude your hard conversation without resolving the conflict, then you have failed.
2. Identify the conflict — You cannot resolve a conflict of which you do not know the dimensions. So, you must define the conflict.
This is, of course, a trap because part of the problem may simply be different definitions of the conflict.
One of the first objectives in the dialog is to ensure y’all are both talking about the same thing.
3. Emotions — The second emotion (anger is an emotion) is injected into a conversation the probability of resolving a conflict drops by half. The longer it continues, the lower the probability of resolving the conflict.
Why? Because the dialog stops being about resolving the conflict and morphs into being about the emotion and the definition of “winning” changes dramatically.
Sure, it’s natural to feel frustrated, angry, irritated — but none of those emotions are going to resolve the conflict and your objective is to resolve the conflict.
Before you sit down, promise yourself that you will not be a serf to emotion. If you find the conversation becoming emotional — you cannot control the other person’s reaction — circle back to something that was not emotional.
If that doesn’t work, then acknowledge that emotion has a seat at the table and try to get the other person to work directly with you to strip emotion out of the conversation. In the most desperate situation, take a break or delay the conversation until emotions evaporate.
Mad decisions are bad decisions.
4. Missionary work — The resolution of a conflict is not an exercise in your converting the other party to your view. Bit of an oversimplification, but usually true.
Resist the temptation to do missionary work. It is perfectly fine to “persuade” the other party as to the wisdom of your view, but not from the beginning. Otherwise it just feels like you are taking the other party to the woodshed and that won’t work with a great many of the persons with whom you may have a conflict — like board members who may form a cabal to fire you.
5. It is not personal — Sure, every bit of business is personal, but if you want to get to the finish line, you cannot make it a personal issue. It must stay within the business relationship and be the resolution of a conflict that advances the business objective. You really shouldn’t have a conflict that is not within the business relationship.
Even when it is very personal, you cannot take it personally.
Fair? No. Effective? Yes.
6. It is not combat — In combat, the objective is to kill your enemy. Conflict resolution in a business setting cannot devolve into combat in which one person is destroyed.
After this conflict is resolved, you will still be working with this person. Never forget that.
7. Do not assume anything — Do not assume you actually know the entire breadth and depth of the conflict. Check, double-check, re-check every fact that bears on this conflict before you arrive at the meeting, with the person with whom you are speaking, and afterwards. Do not assume you know what the conflict is until you verify that you and the other party are in agreement.
8. Tone v content — Do not allow the way you speak — aggressively, dismissively, condescendingly — to divert the conversation from the conflict and its resolution. Be careful. This is particularly true in defining the conflict itself.
I always like to let the other party define the conflict. If he/she had it right, I could make the first positive input, by saying, “Yes, exactly. Well done. That is what we’re going to sort out. Thank you.”
Small thing? Yes, but you are going to solve conflicts with a series of small things, aren’t you?
Tone and emotion always travel together. You get angry, your tone changes, becomes more aggressive.
9. Prepare your thoughts — There is nothing worse than remembering what you wanted to say whilst taking a shower the next day. Make an outline of the important things you want to say and say them.
Conversely, do not wander afield. Stay focused on what you want to accomplish. Do not try to “win” the meeting. Try to resolve the conflict.
10. No ambushes — Do not arrive at the meeting prepared to ambush the other party with a fact set or data that they do not possess. If you think that is a reality, then provide the other party with the info ahead of time.
If you ambush someone, you are certain of receiving an emotional reaction.
11. On guard — There is a subtle difference between catching a person off guard — unprepared — as opposed to ambushing them. I think of catching a person off guard as entering into a substantive discussion without warning the other party that it is a substantive discussion. I often like to start a meeting by reciting my objective.
“Today, I’d like to leave with a clear understanding of the budget and staffing for Project X. Can we do that?” Not a bad idea to get the other party to acknowledge and buy into the big objective before the bloodletting starts.
12. Give and take — Let the other party speak fully and at length. Repeat back to them what you think you have heard, make them agree that your brief back is accurate, and only then begin to discuss and persuade.
Ask the other party to do the same.
13. Persuasion — A lost art today in business and life is the ability to persuade someone. Too often, we seek to win on the merits of our facts alone without doing the heavy lifting of persuading the other party as to their significance.
Two persons of goodwill can look at the same facts and interpret them differently. The conflict may not be about the facts, but the interpretation of what they mean. Be prepared to persuade the other party as to your interpretation — not entirely, but partly.
14. Feedback — At every step of the way, seek feedback. Do not let the discussion build until there is an explosion which injects insurmountable emotion and animosity into the discussion.
“Based on what we’ve discussed thus far, how does this one thing strike you? Can we resolve that one thing before we move on.”
15. No force — Do not force your views or opinion on the other party. The objective is to resolve the conflict not to convert the other party to your view of things. If you can get the action plan agreed, it is not important if y’all agree on things.
Do not bash to fit.
16. The objective — Constantly remind yourself of the objective. Along the way there may be a bit of detritus that you come back to clean up, but stay focused on the objective.
17. Brief back — I have mentioned this in passing above, but when you think you have an agreement, make sure that you both agree as to what the agreement actually is.
If you have a misunderstanding going in, it is likely you could depart with a misunderstanding coming out. Be aware of this and ensure you brief each other on what you believe the understanding is.
18. Close the deal in writing — Once you have briefed each other back as to the understanding, put it in writing. It can be an email. Anything that takes the spoken word and makes it into the written word. It is harder to renege on the written word because you can constantly review it.
Do not ever leave hanging chads or unfinished business. If you do, then you run the risk of the other party re-opening the discussion in its entirety, but with the resolution as the starting point for the re-engaged conversation.
I could add a few more, but these eighteen tips will work.
The big thing is this — there are no accidental outcomes in business or life. In life, we do not get what we deserve, we get what we negotiate.
To negotiate the resolution of a conflict, you have to prepare for the discussion and execute it in a manner that allows your pre-meeting organization to drive the outcome. It is important to prepare for hard conversations.