My customer brings up supply chain issues again, just as they did last meeting and the one before, and for as long as I can remember now. As usual, this is done just when I’m getting to topics that are important to me and the question is accompanied by an agonized, apocalypse-is-nigh expression.

Having been in this position before, I have relevant data and arguments to hand and an instinctive reaction is be to bring these out, prefixed with an inflammatory, “As I have explained several times already …”.

However, as we’ve discussed in previous articles, a lot of what has been learnt over the years about dealing with Difficult Exchanges is counterintuitive. Habit and instinct cannot be relied upon and so I know not to say the first thing that comes to into my head.

I have the presence of mind to pause for a few seconds. I’m doing well, my emotions are more or less under control, now how do I structure my thoughts?

Adjust intentions according to the real difficulty

At this point, when trying to reconcile a Difficult Exchange like this one, we believe it’s crucial to adjust intentions with regards to the real difficulty that has arisen.

In this example, the real difficulty is not the issue of the supply chain. It’s the use of this issue by my client to divert attention from topics that I would prefer to discuss. They seem to be using the supply chain issue to manipulate the agenda.

Furthermore, my intention is not the original set of objectives that I had for the client meeting. Rather, it is how I intend to address the difficulty that has arisen and hence bring the conversation back on track. In other words, how am I going to get back to a normal conversation where both sides trust each other and there is no manipulation or other game being played?

In brief, I should pause and clarify:

  1. The real difficulty, as opposed to a less important side issue
  2. My intention for dealing with the difficulty, rather than my objectives for the conversation as a whole

As the old saying goes,“if I don’t know the port I’m sailing to, then no wind is favourable”. Just as the weather is unpredictable, so are Difficult Exchanges. In our example, a useful intention might be to stop the client’s game and understand what’s behind it. If I keep this in mind then, even if I am interrupted, challenged, questioned and so on, I can adapt my responses according to this intention. Just as a sailor might adjust his sail according to changes in wind direction in order to finally arrive at his intended port.

Aim just for trust by the end of the Difficult Exchange

In addition and according to the philosophy underpinning our RecoDE flow, my intentions must be benevolent and include (re-)establishing trust by the end of the Difficult Exchange. If this can be achieved [1], then I can be confident of making progress towards my objectives for the conversation as a whole. This may not be easy – intelligence, knowledge and skill will be necessary – but once trust has been established, such progress becomes possible.

This guidance and some additional ideas that we’ll outline below are derived from a combination of experience and improvisations of difficult conversation scenes in the context of training courses in large, commercial organisations. The latter have been particularly valuable because:

  1. The audiences have had considerable experience of difficult conversations and have been hungry for new, effective approaches
  2. The time allowed for training and the remote delivery mechanism has made it essential to focus on the bare essentials
  3. By having trainees both script and role-play Difficult Exchange scenes (as though they were on a film set, with a director who cut and reran each scene until it was right) we were able to identify common errors and experiment with ways to overcome them

From this work, we discovered three counterproductive intentions that people commonly often adopt when approaching Difficult Exchanges:

  • Get: continue to focus on objectives for the larger conversation rather than taking the time to first deal with the Difficult Exchange
  • Manipulate: attempt to have the other party do something or perhaps promise something through the use of a technique of some kind (an artifice)
  • Harm: aim to “win” the Difficult Exchange at the expense of the other party – to prove that I am right, to carry the argument, etc.

Don’t try to get anything just yet

The “Get” pitfall is caused by a confusion between the needs of the Difficult Exchange and my objectives for the overall conversation which, as we have already discussed, are quite distinct. Until the Difficult Exchange is reconciled, conditions are not right for discussion of the conversation objectives.

The consequence is usually misunderstanding and bad feeling. Imagine, for example, that I have an annual review with a team member and my objectives for the conversation are, first, to let them know the poor grades that I am giving, then discuss the reasons and start to work on an improvement plan with them. We might expect that a Difficult Exchange will develop as soon as the grades are discussed. If this happens – suppose that the team member gets angry, seeing this as unfair and anticipating consequences for their salary, for example – then it would be a mistake to pursue the other objectives straight away. Even trying to discuss the reasons for the grades would probably lead to an argument. The first thing to do is calm the troll – the emotion, resistance, argumentativeness etc. that has come up. An appropriate intention for this Difficult Exchange would be to reassure my team member that they are valued and that I am doing my best to treat them fairly.

Be careful to avoid manipulation

The “Manipulate” pitfall is associated with a strong need for control over the other party: my customer, boss, team member… Driven by this need, I try to influence others to do or say things that they might not if they were aware of what I was trying to do. This manipulative approach is counterproductive either in the short-term or the long-term, depending on when it’s detected. Of course, nobody likes being tricked into doing something that’s against their interests and when they realize that they have been manipulated, the relationship suffers.

An example, inspired by real events: my department has delivered a software product to another department but we’ve just discovered some expensive-to-fix bugs in the product. I’m extremely nervous about an upcoming meeting with the other department.  Urgent new feature requests are to be discussed, we are already behind on the schedule and finding these bugs puts me in a very difficult position. Rather than admit to this embarrassing state of affairs, I decide to simultaneously calm the worries about schedule and the urgent feature needs by agreeing to nearly all the other department’s requests … on condition that they increase the project’s budget. Unknown to them, I will use this extra money to get my bugs fixed (without them even knowing about them).

We believe that a better adjusted intention would be to create an atmosphere where all the issues and requirements – including the bugs – can be discussed openly and constructively.

Do no harm

The “Harm” pitfall is motivated by the need for revenge, perhaps triggered by anger or fear. Of course, such an intention is inconsistent with a win-win approach. It’s counterproductive because it is likely to cause an escalation of fear and anger.

When stated explicitly, as in the preceding paragraph, it might seem unlikely that a responsible professional would ever approach a Difficult Exchange with an intention to harm. However, a little reflection should convince us that this is not the case. The need to show who’s right is very strong in many of us. When my colleague expounds the merits of the Windows operating system, for example, my blood boils and the myriad reasons why Linux, MacOS or, goddamit, almost anything would be better come straight to mind and, before I know it, I am trying to win an argument. And if I succeed, the other person loses.

The troll in this case is the surge of emotion that resulted from my colleague’s comments and, in anticipation, similar feelings that might be stirred if I were to contradict them. I suggest that this Difficult Exchange would be better approached with the intention of agreeing on a way to deal with this sensitive topic, rather than entering straight into a debate on the topic itself.

In conclusion …

When the supply chain comes up again, or whenever I find myself going into a Difficult Exchange, I will know because of the unpleasant emotions that come up. Whether these emotions are strong and initially overwhelming or if they are just distant signals, warning me that strong feelings may ignite when I talk about the difficulty I’m seeing, I must pause. Having taken a few seconds to clarify the difficultyand adjust my intentions, I am then ready to speak.

My intentions are about taming the troll (reconciling the Difficult Exchange) and I must avoid confusing them with my desire to reach the other side of the bridge (my objectives for the complete conversation). Driven by the latter obsession, I may approach the Difficult Exchange with the idea of getting something specific out of it, whereas the impetus for my intention should be the desire to return to a normal conversation.  Another common mistake is to adopt intentions that are, on close inspection, manipulative or harmful. I believe that everyone does this from time to time – we are not as nice as we might think! 😉

Andrew Betts and colleagues

17th June 2022 (draft 1)

Articles dans cette série en français : 1, 2, 3, 4

English articles in this series : 1, 2, 3, 4

[1] We will look at the question of when I should abort my attempts to reconcile a difficult exchange in a later article.