A Strategy for Difficult Conversations

The younger me didn’t worry much about “messaging”.  If something needed conveyed to another person, I would sit down with them and tell them what was on my mind.  My style in most of those situations was never to be rude, harsh, confrontational or brash – but I certainly didn’t think through every word before it came out of my mouth.

As the twenty year old boy turned into a gray beard at the age of forty, he learned some things in his older age.  Working with twenty year old students and athletes for the last fifteen years has transformed my thinking on “messaging”.  Working in government and having daily interaction with governmental officials and their constituents has also transformed my approach.

While preparing for this blog, I opened the local newspaper a few weeks ago and pulled out a notebook.  I scratched out on that notebook if the headline for each article was positive, negative or neutral.  Why did I do that?  To me, those are the three messages that I think we send pretty quickly in a conversation with others.

Through the thirteen articles, six were “positive”, five were “negative” and two were “neutral”.  This small experience didn’t tell me much.  A 50/50 split in a newspaper is probably pretty common on a daily basis.  But it got me thinking a bit….what is the right split between positive and negative messaging in the workplace, on an athletic team or in a relationship??

I certainly don’t think we should shy away from difficult conversations.  Especially those conversations that need to happen.  A conversation that will help the other person in their life growth is appropriate and can be powerful.  Getting things off your chest can also be therapeutic, so I think that’s a good time to visit negative topics too.

So don’t get me wrong, negative is good in some cases.  But POSITIVITY wins the day.

As I noted earlier, the one important things I had to learn over the last twenty is years is about the approach of the message.  The topic might be a tough one to dive into, but I think there are some tactics that can help “lighten the mood” and turn the message from negative to positive.  I have one approach that I use on a daily basis and that I share with others if they are worried about diving into a tough conversation.  I am sure there is a technical term for this approach, but I call it the COOKIE method.

Picture a sandwich cookie (OREO) in your head – and its three vital parts.  The thin chocolate cookie on the top, a thicker layer of sweet cream/icing in the middle, and a cookie on the bottom that holds it all up.  Are you hungry yet?  Well, stay focused….we have a tough conversation to dive into first.

The thin chocolate cookie on the top and bottom represents a short intro and conclusion of positivity.  The cream is the difficult and challenging conversation.  You might get where I am going, but just in case I have confused you (happens a lot) let me give you a quick example.

Let’s set the stage:  A employee is not completing projects in a timely manner.

Sure you could just dive in and say, “hey, YOU MISSED ANOTHER DEADLINE.” But that might lead to some tension in the office and your relationship with that employee is going to suffer.  You might want to try another method.  Try sitting the employee down one on one.  Start by telling them you appreciate their attention to detail and respect how precise the projects have been.  This is the first step (think chocolate cookie).  After they have absorbed the compliment, talk about the issue at hand – that even though the projects are precise and exactly what you are looking for, they are still tardy.  Walk through why hitting the deadline is important and how it affects the company/organization in the long run.  Explain that this will be something that you will be keeping an eye on in the next few months. You just completed the second and most difficult step (think white icing in the middle).  Lastly, throw out a final compliment or motivational statement and end the meeting right.  Something like, “I know you can do this and I am here to help” or “you are doing an amazing job, and I am glad you are with the company”.  That’s the final step (think chocolate cookie).

In the example above, a few very important things have been accomplished; you have kept their respect, their spirits are still high and you can expect the project will be on time when the next deadline approaches.

A tough conversation that ends up being a WIN-WIN is what you were seeking, and this approach helps you get there.  Try it out the next time you run into a conversation that is going to be tough.

Chris Hardie is the Head Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Coach at Waynesburg University.  You can follow him on Twitter @Coach_Hardie_WU or follow the team on Facebook at Waynesburg University Cross Country.


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