If a conversation is a bridge and a particularly difficult part of that conversation a troll, then what does the troll represent? It is certainly NOT the person I am dealing with. Imagining my boss, my colleague, my customer or anyone else as a troll may be tempting sometimes, but it is not encouraged.

Rather, if we accept Grenny et al’s definition of crucial conversations as those where emotions, opinions and stakes are high, the troll is the emotional part. Once we’ve dealt with this and emotions are no longer troublesome (dominating the discussion) then other challenges, such as differing opinions and risky decisions can be dealt with in a professional manner.

This article (#2 in a series) is not only about how to deal with trolls, it is also about how to teach troll taming skills quickly and remotely. The flow that I will describe came out of an experimental training program on Leading Difficult Conversations in a high-tech multinational. To accommodate participants’ demanding schedules, the course had to teach people a new process remotely, in record time. These constraints led us to considerably simplify accepted theory and the methods used to teach it.

To reconcile most Difficult Exchanges, we’ll have to loop multiple times

The new “flow” is called RecoDE, for Reconciling Difficult Exchanges, and it’s really just a simple loop. To reconcile most Difficult Exchanges, we’ll have to go round it multiple times. This is because, as we’ll explain later, when I reach the “Say” step, I mustn’t say too much! Prepared speeches are out, rapid and balanced dialog is in. That way, I can adjust what I say to the reaction of the other party in a fluid way.

Perhaps surprisingly, the RecoDE loop doesn’t aim to bring the Difficult Conversation to a conclusion. Rather, it just deals with the troll, known more formally as the Difficult Exchange – the part of a conversation where emotions dominate. By reconciling the Difficult Exchange, we restore the necessary conditions for a productive conversation and a potentially useful outcome. Once this has been achieved, one can use one of many, well documented methods for the ensuing conversation, whether it be a negotiation, a performance review or a management meeting, for example. Given the vast amount of information and advice available for these types of interactions, we did not spend time on the outcome of the Difficult Conversation but considered our task complete once the Difficult Exchange was reconciled.

So let’s look at the loop …

Pause

You would have thought that the first step of our process – Pause – would come naturally to anyone meeting a troll. Not so if the troll is in the form of a Difficult Exchange however. Most of us plough straight in, relying on habit and instinct to get us through.

trollHowever, a lot of what has been learnt over the years about dealing with Difficult Exchanges is counterintuitive, and so habit and instinct cannot be relied upon. This is why the first step in the loop – the Pause – is so important. It is necessary to bring our feelings under control, gather our thoughts and then consciously decide what to do. In particular, we strongly recommend thinking about two things …

First, the troll itself – the difficulty. What is it exactly? It may seem obvious (based on instinct), but sometimes the obvious is misleading.

For example, instead of tackling a team member about their lateness for a meeting (“Chris, this meeting started at 10am and it is now 10h15, …”) I might realise that the real problem is that they are invariably late and that I fear they have no respect for me and their colleagues. The latter is a tougher problem, and I might easily avoid it (probably sub-consciously) if I do not take a pause to think. Dealing promptly with such difficulties helps avoid a build-up of issues that pollute relationships, both at work and home.

Unfortunately, we often avoid the toughest problems, preferring to deal with slightly easier ones instead. This is understandable, since tackling the tough stuff requires skill. In fact, the primary motivation for the work that I am describing is to impart such skill.

Also in the Pause step, it is crucial to adjust our intention towards the other party. By doing this, we put ourselves in a good position to deal with the unexpected and to recover from any mistakes made when communicating. If it’s not done then our communication, however technically correct, is unlikely to lead the result that we are hoping for.

In this context, we must not confuse our intention with regards to the Difficult Exchange with any objectives we might have for the conversation as a whole. The intention should be something simple – after all, the Pause step is a matter of a few seconds and we don’t have time to think of anything complicated. Something like “reassure”, “understand” or “clarify” would be just fine, for example. In contrast, my objective for the conversation (should we ever get that far) could be something much more elaborate, such as, “agree on who is responsible for organising the Technical Review Meeting with Acme Ltd”.

Plenty of other silent actions can be imagined for the Pause step. Taking a few seconds to calm our emotions or, at least, to prevent them from dominating our thoughts is clearly important and much has been written about this subject. However,  we put special emphasis on the issues of identifying the real difficulty and adjusting intentions because our work has shown that their neglect leads to very disappointing results. If we don’t know the port to which we are sailing, then no wind is favourable!

Say

The next step is to Say how we see the situation, how we feel and what we need.

Our guidance here is inspired by the Non-Violent Communication (NVC – Marshall Rosenberg) principles on Observations, Feelings and Needs. In a nutshell (to be cracked open in future articles), the key to effective expression of these three is accuracy: describing the precise situation, my real feelings and my genuineneeds.

At the same time, brutal honesty can be dangerous, since the other party may have sensitivities of which we are not aware. We are trying to tame the troll, not beat it do death. The point is not to be right, but to find words that allow us to establish or restore a trusting relationship and hence to communicate effectively. We therefore strive to avoid triggering reactions such as defensiveness, resistance, argumentativeness or withdrawal. While accuracy remains key, we have to both anticipate and monitor the effect that our words have on the other party, combining honesty with empathy and benevolence (see Levinea, Robertsa and Cohenb on Navigating the Tension between Honesty and Benevolence).

Invite, Listen and Decide

Having said what we see, feel and need, the next step is to simply Invite the other party to give their point of view. This can be done in a few words or just with a look. All that matters is that the other person understands our invitation.

Then we Listen attentively to how the other party sees things, trying to understand also how they feel about them and what they fundamentally need. Again, our guidance for this active listening step is drawn primarily from NVC [1].

After active listening, our action is to make a three-way decision: to continue with the Difficult Exchange; to return to a “normal” conversation; or to abort.

This last possibility is necessary since it’s not always possible to resolve a difficulty, or even to make progress towards a resolution. Acknowledging this unfortunate fact of life and providing guidelines which help trainees to recognise and deal with such situations has real value. It protects them and reduces the stress inherent in tackling a Difficult Exchange, since they no longer feel obliged to ‘solve’ the difficulty.

To go further …

That’s the flow in a nutshell and it leaves us with a number of topics that I’d like to elaborate in future articles:

  • What happens in the Pause?
  • How can I get a Difficult Exchange on track from the start?
  • Is it a good idea to express my feelings and, if I do, how best to do it?
  • How can I accurately convey what I fundamentally need?
  • How to know when the Difficult Exchange is over or if I should abort?

However, even before we go into these details, I hope that you are getting an idea of our approach to toll taming. They are the result efforts to help people through Difficult Conversations while minimising training time and working remotely. These constraints drove a number of innovations of which, I believe, the most important are a focus on the Difficult Exchange part of the conversation, key things to do while pausing to take stock and a particularly simple way to use Non-Violent Communication in this context.

Andrew Betts and colleagues

5th June 2022

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

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

[1] Those familiar with NVC may have noticed that I have only referred to the Observations, Feelings and Needs aspects of the discipline, but not “Requests”. This is because our focus on the Difficult Exchange part of the conversation allows us to considerably simplify this aspect of NVC which, in our flow, has become the “Invite” step, encouraging the other party to express their point of view.