Tough Conversations 101

A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend that needed help in giving constructive feedback to a colleague. My friend (let's call her 'Angie') is very logical and needed to have a frank and difficult talk with her coworker (let's name her 'Dottie'), but there was a problem. Every time Angie tried to start a difficult discussion that involved giving Dottie any sort of feedback... Dottie would either get very defensive and/or start crying.

Anyone been there before? I have.

In fact, I've been Dottie. I'm not known for being extremely level headed, and I often bring too much emotion into non-emotional situations. I've come to understand and accept that about myself, but know it can put a wrench in things when important conversations arise. After talking with Angie about some strategies on how to better approach a difficult conversation, I figured it was worth sharing. After all - we have ALL been either an Angie or a Dottie in one situation or another.

For those Angie sympathizers out there: You are possibly very logical, fact focused, less confrontational, and less emotionally expressive. I admire you. Here are some tips for giving constructive feedback to us dang over-reactive Dotties:

  • Express as much empathy as you comfortably can. Although their expression of emotion might make you uncomfortable, it's her main method of relating. If you can express that you understand and empathize, you can help her get to the meat of the issue with minimal drama.
  • "Pad" your statements a bit. Yes, it might sound cheesy, but if you can put a little padding around your very pointed, logical statements, she will be more likely to hear what you are saying. Direct feedback is likely to spark her emotional or defensive response without some lead in.
  • Focus on the positive as well as the negative. She are not perfect, but it will benefit you to put a positive spin on the situation. As long as she can see how her behavior can positively influence others (even if it means changing it to do so), she will get on board.
  • Remind them about the common goal. When emotions run high, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that you are both on the same team fighting the same battle. Mention the shared interest to lower her defenses.
  • Avoid social or potentially embarrassing environments. NEVER approach her with constructive feedback around other people - she will shut down and be unable to effectively process what you are saying. Approach her in a safe place where they are not seen by others.

And if you happen to be a Dottie, I understand: You are most likely a bit more outgoing, might use more emotion and expression in your interactions, and are externally motivated by your social relationships. Below are some tips for giving constructive feedback to those darn logically-minded Angies:

  • Try to express your emotions before approaching her. Whether that means you vent to another friend, write in your journal, or punch a pillow- try to get some of the expression out in another way so you don't have to use as much in your conversation. Expressing too much emotion muddies the message for her.
  • Force yourself to slow down and think through the real issue. Is the real issue the comment she made to you, or a larger problem that is bigger and underneath the comment? Keep asking yourself, "Why did that bother me so much?"
  • Moderate your tone and expressions when you talk. Similar to emotion, you naturally express more verbal and nonverbal cues without realizing it. Put effort into removing sharp accusing tones, pointing fingers, and/or using any body language that might come off as overly aggressive or emotional. (Crying, yelling and eye-rolling are examples...)
  • Minimize your wording. You are most likely and external processor- figuring out the solution as you talk. This is often too much verbiage for her, and your intention gets lost in the gab. Aim to minimize how much you explain something and try your best to keep it simple.
  • Give her space and time. You will want to solve the problem now, but she is going to need some time to process everything you said, and might possibly need to have a follow-up conversation to close the loop. Give her space and time to craft an appropriate response.

And for everyone, I would offer the following tricks and advice. These are research proven techniques.

  • Be intentional about time and location: If you know the person well enough - take a few moments to evaluate the good and bad times of day to give him or her feedback. Location also matters- the more neutral, the better. Consider removing yourselves from the work space or walking together.
  • "Prime" her positively: The more 'happy' and less stressed her brain feels, the more likely she is to be open to other opinions and perspectives. DON'T have the conversation when you are both focused on a stressful task. In those situations, it's too hard for your brains to consider other options because it's being forced to focus and be productive. If we are in social areas surrounded by positive people and experiences (kids laughing, exercise, nature, etc), we are more likely to also mirror those emotions and feel happy.