How do you initiate a difficult conversation? Even when the other party has really screwed me over, I'm hard pressed to think of a time when going in with guns blazing resulted in a successful outcome. In yesterday's post on John Gottman's findings about good relationships, I briefly mentioned the value of a "soft startup," i.e. initiating a tough discussion gently and compassionately, rather than leaping to harsh, critical comments.
I participated in some role-plays today with students at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and the experience made it quite clear that a soft startup goes a long way toward resolving difficulties successfully. J. Bailey Molineux talks at greater length about Gottman's definition of a soft startup, and although his comments are focused on a discussion between a husband and wife, I think they can be paraphrased effectively for use in professional relationships:
How to Initiate a Soft Startup
- Start with something positive. (C'mon, you must be able to think of something.)
- Use "I" statements to express your perspective and your feelings. (Don't assume that what you perceive is the only possible truth.)
- Don't make assumptions about the other party's perspective. (They may not even be aware that there's a problem, or it may not be their fault--and they may be happy to help solve it if they're approached in the right way.)
- State your request clearly, firmly and politely. (And acknowledge any concessions that are granted.)
Now this is just the beginning of the discussion, not the conclusion, and you'll need a number of additional behavioral skills in your repertoire to succeed. But marriage researchers like Gottman have concluded that spouses are much more likely to resolve difficult conversations successfully when they use a soft startup, and I'm inclined to believe that the same is true in most of our professional relationships as well.