We know it's going to be a difficult conversation because we keep putting it off. We know it's going to be difficult because we feel unsettled when we think about it. We know it's going to be difficult because we're not sure it's going to end well. What could we do to make it easier and increase the likelihood of success?
I recently wrote about how we can alternately connect with or control others in the process of managing a difficult relationship. Many of the connecting and controlling strategies we might employ involve initiating a difficult conversation or behaviors we might exhibit during such a conversation, such as active listening or expressing anger.
In Part 2 of this essay I'll talk more about those in-the-moment behaviors and the internal dynamics that support (or undermine) them, but first I want to reflect on what we might call setting the table: tactical steps and external factors to consider before initiating a difficult conversation.
In my work as a coach I regularly help my clients and MBA students at Stanford prepare for any number of conversations like this: firing an employee who's not working out, sharing critical feedback with a close colleague, pushing back against an unreasonable superior, having a heart-to-heart with a friend who's struggling. I see five key dimensions to difficult conversations--Relationship, Timing, Duration, Place and Space--and within each one there are multiple questions we can ask ourselves in order to prepare:
Who is this person to me, and who am I to them? What is our status relative to each other, both formally and informally? What authority or influence do I have over them? What authority or influence do they have over me? How will these factors affect my invitation (or my request or my command) to speak with this person?
Are we engaged in an ongoing dialogue, or will this conversation be something new for us? How will that affect their response to the conversation? (And how do I want this conversation to impact the relationship? Deepen it? Challenge it? End it?)
When should the conversation occur? What time of day? What day of the week? What other time horizons merit consideration? (And am I rushing things to get it over with, or dragging my feet in the hope that the issue will magically be resolved before I need to deal with it?)
What will I and the other person be doing immediately before and immediately after the conversation? What timing will allow both myself and the other person to be in the best possible frame of mind for this conversation?
What if the other person initiates the conversation before I expect it to occur? What are the pros and cons of deferring? What are the pros and cons of seizing the moment? (And if I choose to defer, how can I do so gracefully? If I choose to seize the moment, what do I want to be most mindful of in that moment?)
How much time should I allot for the conversation? (And is that a realistic assessment, or is that how much time I hope it will take?)
Do either of us have a hard stop at the end of this conversation? Do we need to keep track of time? If so, can I share that responsibility with the other person, or is it mine alone? What tools might be available--a phone, a watch, a clock? (And how much of a buffer should I leave between the figural "end" of the conversation and the literal moment either of us will need to move on to our next obligation?)
What if the conversation goes much better (or worse) than I expect? How good (or bad) will it have to be for me to ignore my schedule in order to continue the conversation?
Where should the conversation take place? Would a formal setting like an office or a sit-down restaurant provide some useful social constraints, or would it feel too stifling? Would an informal setting like a cafe or at home be helpfully relaxing, or would it feel too unbounded? If there's a location in which this conversation would normally take place, will that predictability be comforting or stultifying? (And should it be on my turf, or their turf, or on neutral ground?)
What social setting would be optimal? How much privacy will we need? Will the presence of other people be helpful or distracting?
What other environmental factors might be in play? Will any visual distractions be in my line of sight or theirs? Will ambient noise affect the conversation? Will there be any physical discomforts that could make it hard to focus? (And if any of these factors change in the middle of the conversation, what am I prepared to do to deal with them?)
How should we be oriented toward each other? Should we be across a table, or next to each other, or on adjacent sides? Should there even be a table? (And should we even be seated? What would it be like to hold the conversation while taking a walk together?)
What proximity is optimal, given the relationship and our respective preferences for personal space? How close is too close? How far is too far? Would I be better served by increasing or decreasing that distance? (And would it be comforting or inappropriate to touch the other person? If it would be comforting, am I prepared to reach out to them?)
Note that we may feel that it's somehow illegitimate to prepare in this way. We may lack the authority to influence these factors, or we may suspect that such details are too minute to worry about, or we may believe that staging a conversation in this way detracts from its authenticity.
So perhaps the most important step in setting the table for a difficult conversation is recognizing the value--and the legitimacy--of this form of preparation. In some cases we're so distracted by the challenge of even having the conversation that we fail to consider the many ways in which we might prepare, and it's helpful to simply pause and remind ourselves of our options before we take action.
Photo by Dinner Series. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.