Important conversations: no guts, no glory

Bridge the issues. [image (c) Kathryn Radmall]In business school I took a class where we worked in a team of four to do a strategy project for a local company. I partnered with a friend and two other classmates who I knew less well.

We worked hard work and met frequently throughout the semester, resulting in a successful presentation for our client. And it seemed that all was well until our final team meeting, when it came time to divide the points for the project.

Generally in a group project, everyone gets the same grade and so the points are evenly divided. But for this particular class, our professor had a system intended to crack down on “team slackers.” Each person individually divided 100 points amongst the entire team, based on their view of how much each person contributed to the effort.

I don’t know if our professor had intended to create a TV show “Survivor” dynamic, but for our group, that’s what happened. Although I thought everything had gone well, and I’d gotten positive feedback from my teammates throughout the semester, I found myself “voted off the island” in the final meeting, and told that I hadn’t contributed enough to the project.

It was a shock, and a disappointment. I couldn’t help but think “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” But right at that moment, I was too angry to say anything constructive.

Going away from that meeting, I had a dilemma. On the one hand I really wanted to understand what had happened. On the other hand the situation was so awkward, especially with my friend, that I wanted to forget about the whole thing.

Here’s what I did. I took some time to cool off and talked to friends from outside of school. I eventually began to realize how I’d contributed to what happened.

Early on in the project, I had a sense that my teammates were unhappy, but that they weren’t saying anything about it. We’d do one on one check-ins every two weeks, and I sensed that they were holding something back, but I was too scared to press them on it. Interestingly enough, our professor got the same sense midway through the project, just from watching the team’s non-verbals when she met with us for a project update.

She asked the “what’s going on?” question, and I thought she was hallucinating. “Everything’s fine” was the team’s reply. This would have been a good opening for individual “what’s going on?” discussions, but I ignored the teacher’s concern and assumed that everything was fine.

Granted, if someone is unhappy with me and is determined to not say anything, I can’t force them to talk. But I can raise the issue and open the door to conversation, shifting the onus to them to either speak up, or take responsibility for their silence.

So there I was, having just been burned by people who were unhappy but didn’t say anything. And now I was very unhappy with my friend, and I wasn’t saying anything to him. I couldn’t stand the thought of being fake with him in future, pretending that nothing had happened. It was time for action.

I told him that I wanted to talk about what had happened, so we got together for lunch. After a few awkward moments, I gave as factual a recounting as I could about what I’d seen happen. He stayed cool, heard what I said, and then told me how things looked from his point of view.

I got very valuable insight into his thinking process, and saw how I’d contributed to the outcome. I also came away with new ideas for what I could do differently next time. He also said that he’d learned a lot from our conversation.

On that day, we both realized the perils of avoiding tough conversations. And in finally sitting down after the fact and having “a tough conversation about the avoided tough conversations”, we experienced the benefits. Furthermore we had released our friendship from the baggage of unspoken anger and disappointment.

Let’s face it: it takes courage, guts, and skill to have productive “important conversations.” And in my experience, the payback is big. Here is what I do to prepare for such a conversation:

  • I wait until I’m calmer about the situation. When I’m pissed off I’m likely to do damage.
  • I talk to a third party who knows none of the players involved, and in explaining the situation to them, I get clear in my own mind about what’s going on.
  • Before the conversation, I consider what I’d like to see happen differently.

And when I actually have the conversation, here are some guidelines I try to keep in mind:

  • I pay attention to my breathing: it helps me calm down.
  • I stick to the facts: what I saw happen, how it impacted me, what I want going forward.
  • I avoid getting into intense emotions during the discussion. Otherwise the situation can needlessly escalate. If I have intensity to deal with, I do so with a coach before the meeting. Some books advise, “get all of your feelings out on the table”: in my experience that can easily go awry.

If you’re looking for a framework on how to prepare for and have important conversations, check out the book Difficult Conversations.

Paul Konasewich,

© 2007 Paul Konasewich


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