The Conversations We Never
BY HOWARD HORWITZ
“In the end, we will remember not the words
of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Almost every association professional
knows the anguish of missing the opportunity to remedy a broken situation. Yet
time after time, we let those moments slip
by or we don’t act in a way that really
improves the situation. We can’t seem to
find the right words or approach to say
what really needs to be said.
In their best-selling book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are
High, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph
Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
addressed the tragedy of conversations
never had or handled poorly. The staff of
the American College of Healthcare Executives has been trained in the Crucial
Conversations tools and practices to make
those important interactions more timely
Not every conversation is or should be
crucial — most are just an information
update or the exchange of ideas. But
when there are what the authors call
Opposing Opinions, High Stake Outcomes
and Strong Feelings, the conversation just
got crucial. Recognizing when these elements are present and taking the appropriate steps in the right order can save
time, emotions and relationships.
A staff member asks to take on a new
project. In an attempt to develop this
individual you agree, but you know the
required skills are just not there. Later, he
excitedly brings you a draft, explaining
that it took longer than he thought but he
believes you will be very pleased with the
outcome. You read the document and a
combination of disappointment and affirmation well up in you.
That little voice inside says, “I knew this
wasn’t going to work” and “he thought I
was going to be pleased with this?” The
voice, now a little louder, says, “Why did I
ever agree to this? Now, it has to be fixed
and I just don’t have the time or interest.”
We complete this negative tale with the
assertion that our budding protégé cannot
improve it on his own and probably should
not be given any more opportunities to
waste time and organizational resources.
Despite these strong emotions, when
the opportunity arises to provide open
and honest feedback, we rarely say what
we really feel. Instead, we hedge. We say
things like, “This was a very good effort,”
or “let me make a few minor changes and
I think we are there.” You and your staff
member part ways after taking part in a
presumably positive dialogue. But in reality, neither of you feel good and the project still has a long way to go.
A crucial conversation was at hand and
you failed to recognize it or, more likely,
just failed to act on it. Why? Because saying what we really feel, especially when
it’s bad news, takes more time, is emotionally risky and is just plain hard. The
potential for a better future outcome and
a better working relationship is sacrificed.
And worse, it will be harder to address the
same type of situation in the future.
THREE TECHNIQUES TO AVOID
1. Procrastination and Assumption
Most of us delay providing valuable feedback even though we know the more immediate the conversation, the more likely the
desired outcome will be achieved. When we
finally do provide that constructive criticism, the message is sometimes out of context or we don’t deliver it in specific, honest
terms. We assume that the other party
understands and mentally “close the case.”
Why are we surprised when a similar situation reoccurs?
This is a communication technique to
provide a balance of good news and bad
news. The bad news is usually “
sandwiched” between two relatively thin pieces
of good news and the outcome is generally questionable. Saying to a fellow staff
member, “The color you’re wearing looks
really good on you,” followed by, “The
quarterly report you filled last week was
full of typographic and factual errors and
failed to provide the key analysis that our
team really needed,” and then close by
saying, “I hope you’re doing something
really special for your birthday,” can really
leave a mixed message!
When communicating potentially negative information, it is far wiser to focus on
that issue while providing clear, accurate
and substantiated information. Give
plenty of time for discussion and questions. But trying to soften the blow with
poorly disguised “happy talk” is generally
seen as insincere and cowardly.
3. Overuse of Electronic Media
Despite the ease and accessibility of e-mail
and voicemail, refrain from using them
when the topic is of an emotional nature.
The chance of misinterpreting the real
meaning is just too great. When you need
real understanding, there is no substitute
for face-to-face communication or, when
that is impractical, a phone call. This way,
both parties know the issue and intent,
and they can agree on the outcome.
When the topic has Opposing Opinions,
High-Stake Outcomes and Strong Feelings, there is the opportunity for a crucial
conversation. These conversations require
forethought, compassion and the time to
make sure the outcomes you desire can
be achieved. Invest those resources the
first time — your long-term results will be
so much better.
Howard Horwitz is vice president, education, at the
American College of Healthcare Executives. He may
be reached at email@example.com.