Sunday, May 15, 2011

What to Say When Feelings are at Stake

I had several very enjoyable speaking engagements last week, and I always like to hang around afterwards to talk to anyone that has a question or would like to share an experience. I was approached by one young man who asked an excellent question and I want to share this with all of you.

He explained to me that his boss is from another culture. His boss tries very hard to understand what is said to him, but sometimes has trouble and is slow to ask for clarification, presumably for fear of appearing somehow challenged by language or cultural differences. I couldn’t help but think to myself about the scores of coworkers I have had that demonstrated the same trait without the benefit of a good reason like being from a different culture.

The young man then told me that he was concerned that he had a moderately complex issue to explain to his boss, and was concerned that there was no way to talk to him about it without things getting difficult. He couldn’t think of any way to start the conversation without it sounding like he was” dropping a bomb”, and was looking for what to do.

I want to share with you all (as I did with him) the tool of “prefacing” in these situations. That is rather than start straight into the content, preface your statement with a short and sincere statement that prepares the listener for what you are about to say.

For example, the young man I was speaking to was afraid that his boss would take his as a personal attack, so suggested he say something like:

“Boss, I need to tell you something and I don’t really know how to start without just saying it. I want you to know that I am not in any way attacking you but that I mean to be constructive. I’m willing to discuss it as long as you like until you are completely comfortable that I am saying this for our mutual benefit. Can we talk now or would it be better to do it this afternoon?”

This is not a random statement, but one that thoughtfully uses several elements of THE SCORE to make the other party feel as comfortable as possible in hearing some rough news and keep them engaged until the issue is resolved. Let’s look at it:

1) We start out tentative and humble, letting the other person know that we are doing what we think is right and have their goodwill in mind.

2) We are sincere and state the situation as simply as we can. We are respectful.

3) We address the potential for being misunderstood by using a technique called “contrasting”, meaning that, more than saying we are not attacking, we contrast the idea of attacking with what we ARE doing (which is being constructive). This is a method of “hyper-clarifying”, making it simple for our intention to register with the person that we are addressing.

4) We are engaged and committed to solving this, NOT dropping a bomb on them and willing to stay and discuss this thoroughly.

5) We close by offering a share of the control in the selection in aspects of the conversation (could be time, place, attendees – in this case, we offered control of the time). This shows respect and openness to collaboration.

When something must be said, and we don’t know how to start, admitting that and starting anyway can be the most productive and the most human thing to do.

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