How to handle difficult conversations? The art of constructive feedback.

“You are always late!”, “You never wash the dishes!”, “Oh you really fucked this up”.

Have you ever criticized someone this way? I’m sure you have. What was the reaction? It was far from “I’m sorry, I’ll try to improve” and closer to “yeah sure, like you’re always perfect”, “but you never clean the bathroom” or even a very constructive “leave me alone, you fucked it up yourself!”.

What comes next is a fight over many other, totally irrelevant issues, angry stares and in worse cases door slamming and a few quiet days.

And is the problem solved? Nope, not at all.

 

How to handle a difficult conversation?

I must admit that I really HATE difficult conversations and giving a negative feedback. It’s very hard for me. I’ve never known how to start, my hands sweat, voice breaks and why don’t I start crying even before I say anything. Lovely, isn’t it?

When someone explained to me for the first time what’s the right way to do it I was amazed. Life would have been so much easier had I known this before! I think that the subject called “Communication” should replace some useless ones at school…
But let’s get to the point.

There is a four-step scheme of giving feedback (both negative and positive actually). The steps are: Facts, Feelings, Results and Expectations. If you use this scheme in your difficult conversation – it’s going to be easier both for you and the other person.

difficult conversation
Facts

A difficult conversation needs to begin with specific examples of behavior which you didn’t like (or like, this can be used for positive feedback as well). Really, really specific. Forget all the “always” and “nevers”, forget the generalization or blaming the other person. Specific, undeniable fact which can’t be misinterpreted.
Let’s use my above examples:

“You are always late!”
Fact: For the third time this week you came to the meeting 20 minutes after the agreed time
(very specific, no space for interpretation. One person considers he “is late” only after coming one hour later while for a punctual person even 5 minutes are unacceptable.)

“You never wash the dishes!”
Fact: “This week when I come home I see a sink full of dirty dishes every day”

“Oh you really fucked this up”
Fact: The client called me and told me that you were impolite to him.

Feelings and Results:

Continue your difficult conversation telling the other person how do you feel about the above fact (if it’s revelant). It makes your message stronger. Then explain what this fact results in.

“You are always late!”
Fact: For the third time this week you came to the meeting 20 minutes after the agreed time
Feelings & results: I’m pissed off, then we don’t have enough time to talk about everything.

“You never wash the dishes!”
Fact: “This week when I come home I see a sink full of dirty dishes every day”
Feelings & results: I need to clean up after you and I’m tired of this.

“Oh you really fucked this up”
Fact: The client called me and told me that you were impolite to him.
Feelings & results: I am disappointed, now we may lose this important contract.

Expectations:

With no appropriate ending all the above effort could just end up with “ok, so what?”. Tell the other person what you expect.

“You are always late!”
Fact: For the third time this week you came to the meeting 20 minutes after the agreed time
Feelings & results: I’m pissed off, then we don’t have enough time to talk about everything.
Expectations: Please be on time next time we meet.

“You never wash the dishes!”
Fact: “This week when I come home I see a sink full of dirty dishes every day”
Feelings & results: I need to clean up after you and I’m tired of this.
Expectations: Can you start cleaning up after yourself?

“Oh you really fucked this up”
Fact: The client called me and told me that you were impolite to him.
Feelings & results: I am disappointed, now we may lose this important contract.
Expectations: I want you to call the client and apologize.

Voila. That’s how a blaming, offensive message changes into a good one – what’s wrong, what are the results and what to do with it. It’s all clear, nobody feels offended or slams doors. Difficult conversation changes into mature communication.

I’m still learning to use this scheme in my everyday life. It’s not always necessary with simple things and it’s often better just to use a cheeky “get your ass moving and clean those dishes, you lazy bastard!”.

But with more difficult and serious issues this method can help you avoid unnecessary insults or saying the words you will regret. And most importantly the conversation will be effective and the problem will be solved.

That’s the point, isn’t it?

 

In order to prepare for the difficult conversation well you need to know your priorities. When I need to sort them out in my head I go hiking. Check how mountains help me get my priorities right (and can help you too). You also might find useful the life lesson I learnt from cleaning bird poop from the terrace during my WWOOF volunteering in the USA.

If you prefer, you can also check how to bore yourself to death and achieve nothing in your life. Sounds cool, huh? 🙂

And if you found this post useful please use the buttons below and share it on Facebook, Twitter or Google+! Thanks! 🙂

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  • The Crazy running guy

    Well written and beneficial article if you are able to follow the steps to have a more meaning dialogue; that’s key for being successful using this information.

    • It’s hard to learn and apply this method efficiently but once you do it definitely makes life easier.

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