The big challenge in difficult conversations is that we’re overtaken by a sense of risk. “Risk?” you say. I haven’t don’t anything wrong! That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
The first thing that goes is our sense of certainty. “What does this challenge to my competence mean?” I might be able to say, “Well, thanks for the feed back.” But some of us are bound to be feeling, “What does she really want? What’s my exposure? What does this mean for my prospects here? Who else thinks that I am not ‘strategic’ enough?”
When we engage in difficult conversations, we really do experience a threat to our sense of certainty. Because the brain has, we believe, evolved to find and make sense of patterns, we stop noticing them until they’re altered. Scientists now believe that the brain responds to “even a small amount of uncertainty as an error.” ((“SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.”(pdf) David Rock)) Error detection triggers increases alertness, usually accompanied by a rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, and a narrowing of attention. Maybe it’s just a change in the environment, but change can carry threat. In evolutionary time, it wasn’t that long ago that our well being was at risk when errors in the environment shot us the message: En garde! So we may hear, “Come into my office,” as a threat.”
“Oh there goes gravity” – Eminem
When that certainty about ourselves is yanked from under our feet, no one can reassure us that it’s going to be okay. You know this from being on the receiving end. “You’ve made great contributions to the team and I see this an anomaly.” Would you feel all better? Of course not.
We distrust the message and the messenger. We argue against both. Before the feedback, she was a decent colleague and afterward she was a jerk, a malicious manipulator, and she can’t pick out clothes to save her life. In my experience, the more accurate the feedback, the more I have felt a brief fit of personal animus.
Knowing what it means to be a professional, we express fight or flight in mostly civilized ways. My reaction is often flight: keep quiet, head down, I’m going to be okay, I can remedy this in coming weeks. Others let it out. Don’t kid yourself. It’s personal. It’s what the Difficult Conversations authors call the Identity Conversation. ((Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, Heen. p. 14)) You just lost your self image. It’s going to take some time to put it back together. If you’re going to take in that feedback, it’s not going to be simple, either. Have a little compassion for the the person who you started the conversation with; they’re going to feel they got jumped.
Tip 3: Rebuild a sense of certainty with simple, genuine action
If you initiated the conversation, very little you say can restore the sense of certainty that the other person is valued, competent, or worth investing in. Don’t rush to treat this situation as a problem to be solved. It’s a Threshold moment. Both of you have stepped into room that neither of you has visited before. Step across the threshold, do your best to let go of what you had assumed, and pay attention to what’s new. This is going to take a lot of attention, which requires real effort. But you and the other person are going to reap dividends in candor and trust for months or years.
A simple plan for next steps
As a starting point, take these steps:
- Meet again soon. The next day is ideal.
- Conversation number two focuses on listening and letting the person know you heard them.
- In coming days, play a part in restoring a sense of certainty by:
- Capitalizing on the person’s strengths. “Could I ask you, Dan, and you, Lee (the freaking-out guy in the conversation) to propose some approaches?”
- Confirming Lee’s value in positive language. “Your ideas about working with manufacturing partners helped us break a vicious cycle. Please keep on bringing that kind of thinking to our team’s challenges.” (Don’t inflate or lie, just look for opportunities to be genuine.)
My colleague and fellow leadership coach Kande McDonald and I will talk share more about Threshold Conversations. You’ll have a chance to envision how you might use a new approach to the moment of panic when certainty evaporates. We hope to see you there.