2 Steps to Improve Your Difficult ConversationsPublished October 1, 2018
Once again, Michael ruined Anita’s vacation.
Anita was furious to learn that Michael moved up the deadline by two weeks. Now her team would have to drop everything to work round the clock, and the vacation that she’d been working so hard to protect would be filled with conference calls rather than quality time with her kids.
“I can’t believe he just changed the deadline. My boys have been looking forward to this for weeks. Michael just doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”
Our story of what’s going on
When things go wrong, we immediately tell a story about the other person. Why are they being such a jerk? In fraught relationships and tense situations, those stories about the other person’s intentions or motivations are usually negative. After all, their actions speak to their character, and it’s obvious that they’re oblivious at best, self-absorbed and selfish at worst.
The challenge is that we’re telling the story not from their actions, but from the impact their actions have on us. Michael’s actions are (once again) going to disrupt Anita’s life—and this time not just her team’s life, but her family’s life. All of this is true.
The challenge is that we’re telling the story not from their actions, but from the impact their actions have on us.
From Anita’s point of view, it’s the last straw. She needs to confront Michael about the fact that he is so inconsiderate of everyone else’s time.
This is where we get into trouble.
We conflate intentions and impact
Whether Michael is inconsiderate isn’t a fact. It’s an interpretation or a read on his intentions—why he did what he did, and whether he is a good person.
Michael knows he is just doing his best in a difficult situation. Michael knows this project has multiple deliverables and a tight timeline, and that he is just trying to keep everything on track. He learned yesterday that one of Anita’s pieces would be needed earlier than expected, and he was quick to let her know. Any suggestion that he’s being purposely inconsiderate leaves him feeling incredibly under-appreciated and unfairly accused.
So who is right?
They are both right. It can be true that Michael has good intentions. Most people have mostly good intentions most of the time. Or at least that is how we experience ourselves—as doing our best and trying to do the right thing.
But it can also be true that his decisions have a bad impact on other people. The fact remains that this will have a serious impact on Anita’s vacation.
Speak to impact, not intentions.
If Anita wants a shot at having a better conversation with Michael, she needs to do two things:
1. Avoid accusing him of having bad intentions—of doing anything “on purpose,”
2. Share the impact on her—which is, in the end, what’s most important.
So, rather than raising the “fact” that Michael is being inconsiderate, she might say, “Michael, I don’t know if you remember this or not, but I am out next week on a long-awaited vacation with my kids. I’m not going to be able to turn this around on the new timeline, so let’s talk about how to handle it….”
This is Anita’s best shot at inviting Michael into a conversation where he can stay focused on problem-solving with her, rather than defending himself and consequently digging in his heels about being right that the new deadline must be met.
But what if they don’t have good intentions?
Should I always assume the other person has good intentions?
No. And it’s not that you are necessarily assuming their intentions are good. You are assuming you don’t know their intentions, because other people’s intentions are invisible to us. Good intentions are most likely, but not guaranteed.
As leaders, we inevitably impact others in ways we didn’t intend—despite our best intentions.
So, is our advice different if they are being inconsiderate or even malicious? No, at least not at first. When you speak up to say, “I don’t know whether you remember this or not” you are also putting them on notice that the impact on you is not okay with you.
You can make specific requests for a change in their behavior. “Next time, please check with me before you promise something on behalf of my team.” You are letting them know that operating this way is not how you will work most effectively together, and that you are going to raise it with them if and when it happens again.
As leaders, we inevitably impact others in ways we didn’t intend—despite our best intentions. Being able to talk about impacts and better understand each other’s intentions gives us way to figure out a way forward.
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About the Author
Sheila Heen (GLS 2015) has spent two decades at the Harvard Negotiation Project, specializing in our most difficult conversations—where disagreements are strong, emotions run high and relationships become strained. Her firm, Triad Consulting Group, works with executive teams to strengthen their working relationships, work through tough conversations and make sound decisions together. She has written two New York Times bestsellers, including her most recent, Thanks for the Feedback, which helps leaders improve their ability to receive feedback.
Years at GLS 2015, 2018