Creating Safety for Hard Talks

As a leader, your job is make hard talks safe for yourself and for the other person. But these conversations are hard precisely because they often provoke emotional responses. The communications tools in this month’s Executive Coaching Tip can help keep difficult conversations safe.

Blocks against hard talks

Danielle was reluctant to broach the elephant in the room with her boss, Kerry.

Weeks ago, Kerry had offered her a substantial change in position. The benefits attached to this offer were significant, but there were downsides, too. It would mean leaving her international post, which she adored. And she would have to take on more management functions and have fewer leadership functions. She was torn.

Now, at the U.S. corporate headquarters for one of her periodic two-week whirlwinds, she and Kerry had been together a lot and talked about a lot of things, but, amazingly, neither of them had brought up the offer.

Danielle and I had stolen time off her calendar to get together for lunch. She and I often got together during her headquarter visits; I’d coached her many years earlier, just before she took the international position. But those conversations rarely held the urgency this did: precious days were ticking by and the avoidance was becoming a distraction.

“I just have to talk with him about it before I go back. It’d be ridiculous if I didn’t.”

“What’s stopping you?” I asked.

“From just bringing it up? I don’t know. I guess because I know how uncomfortable he gets in those sorts of talks. I’ve seen it. He stops listening and agrees to almost anything just so he can get out of there. But the agreements don’t stand up later, so everything has to get discussed again. I’d rather avoid that. It’s not worth it.”

“What else?”

“What else what?”

“What else stops you from talking to Kerry about the new role?”

She had thought she was done, but now she stopped and cocked her head, scanning her inner files. “Nothing else really. My thinking is clear. I know what I want to tell him. I’m fine if he wants to negotiate, but I bet he won’t. And if we don’t negotiate, I can’t trust that he’ll do what he says. I could really screw myself if I make this move and he doesn’t keep his word.”

I understood her caution: a lot would be at stake if she took this new role.

She gave an angry little snort. “You know what makes me mad at myself? This feels like a failure of leadership. To flinch this badly about my own career! What kind of leader am I if I can’t have a difficult conversation with my boss?”

I shrugged, saying, “No argument from me.”

How not to flinch

“Will you answer me a question honestly?” she asked me.

“Probably.”

“Do you flinch like I’m flinching?”

“I used to, sure. Of course. Who doesn’t? If you’d’ve asked me at the time, I would’ve told you I was the silent, tortured king of flinching.”

Drifting to her own thoughts, she said, “But not any more?”

“Not as much.”

She thought, then nodded yes to some question she’d asked herself, and said, “I want to learn whatever you learned. Do you have a lesson plan on ‘How Not to Flinch’?”

“I suppose. Or at least I can make one up!”

“Spoken like a consultant!” she laughed.

I took a breath and launched. “Here’s my first idea. Let’s start with one word: safety. If things aren’t safe, the difficult conversation will be shallow. Things have to be safe.”

“Safe for whom?”

“You tell me.”

“Us both, I suppose.”

“OK.”

“But I can’t really make it safe for him, can I?” she asked. “I don’t know what’s going to feel safe to him.”

“Good point. So let’s start with you. What’s it going to take to make things feel safe for you to have this conversation?”

What makes safety?

She barely thought before saying, “I want to know that whatever he agrees to now he’ll actually be doing a year from now. I don’t want him to say yes unless he’s going to keep his word.”

“That’s what would make it safe for you?”

“If I knew that, yes, I would feel one-hundred per cent safe.”

“So your safety is going to depend on something he does or doesn’t do.”

She thought about that. “That’s flawed thinking, isn’t it?”

“Flawed how?”

“Well, saying I won’t feel safe unless he does such-and-so feels like my safety is in his control. But I’m the only person who can control my safety, right?”

“Elegantly thought through.”

She lowered her chin and took a breath. “OK. Let me take another crack at how to make myself feel safe.” She paused, then said, “I guess just accepting that he’s probably going to do what he always does. And if he does, well, I don’t have to say yes.”

She put down her fork and played with her napkin while she thought.

After a while she said, “This is a great question to ask myself. ‘What can I do so I’ll feel safe?’ I should ask myself this before I talk with Stephanie.” Stephanie, her teen-age daughter, had entered a difficult phase. “What can I do that would make it safe for me to talk to her? This question is going to be really helpful for me.”

Picking up her fork again, she said, “But enough about me and my safety. What about me and his safety?” We both laughed. “Can I ever make it safe for him?”

The Meta-Conversation

“I think you can try. There are two ideas I use all the time to help create safety. They’re more than just ideas. They’re like scripts.”

“Great. Teach me what to say. Both of them.”

“OK. Before I dive in, though, I have to say that both these scripts live in the same file drawer.”

She laughed at the metaphor. “OK. And what’s this file drawer labeled?”

“Meta-conversation.” I stopped talking.

She thought a second, then said, “Not ‘what gets said’, but ‘how things get said’, right?”

“You got it. In order to use either of these tools, you have to keep some of your attention on what’s actually happening in the room in real time.”

“That’s the ‘how’ part. How is this conversation going right this minute?” She smiled at me, saying, “I’ve gotten better at paying attention to what’s happening in the room, but it’s not always easy to remember. Of course, I wasn’t really doing it at all before I met you.”

I laughed. “Well, brace yourself. Here comes more!”

“Bring it on,” she said.

The “Reflection” script

“OK. The two scripts are titled ‘Intention’ and ‘Reflection.’ In the first one, you get to talk about what’s important to you. And you can think that out ahead of time. In the second one, you’re all in real time, reflecting whatever’s happening in the room.”

“Even if what’s happening in real time is about me? Like, I’m getting angry?”

“Sure, yes, it’s always going to be about you.”

“Then I like this!”

“So you should! But, seriously, think about it. ‘Reflection’ is always through your lens. You can’t reflect anything but through your lens.”

“Oh, I see. So anything I notice, like, it looks like you’re getting upset. Or I notice that I’m feeling anxious. Whatever I notice, I can notice it out loud.”

“Right. That’s ‘Reflection’.”

She gave a little bark of a laugh. “’Reflection’ was second, and we did it first!”

“How meta of you to notice.”

“So why does my reflecting things make anything safe?”

“That’s where the script kicks in. So, first I notice something. Gee, Danielle, you seem to be getting anxious. Or, gee, Kerry, we seem to be avoiding talking about this new position. Whatever. Then I have to either speak my own honest thoughts about my observation. Or I have to allow you to speak your own honest thoughts first, and then I’ll speak mine.”

“Oh. It’s that kind of script. You’re not going to give me words. You’re going to give me a blank I have to fill in.”

“Right. First you reflect something. Then you talk openly about that. And you invite the other person to talk openly, too.”

“And that’s why it’s safe. Because the talking has already begun. I get it! Nice!” She signaled for the check. “So what about ‘Intention’?”

The “Intention” Script

“Oh, ‘Intention.’ This is like an old friend. I love ‘Intention.’”

“Can’t wait!”

“One nice thing about ‘Intention’ is that you can think it out ahead of time. Ask yourself, what’s my real intention? Why am I having this conversation at all? What do I want for myself? And what do I want for the other person? What do I really want here?” I looked at her and asked, “For you, why do you want to talk with Kerry about the position?”

Without the slightest breath, she shot back, “Because I’m not going to uproot my family and put a bomb in my career if he’s going to change his mind a year from now.”

“You just spoke your intention.”

She stopped. I watched her rewind her words. After a quick analysis, she said, “But how would I say that as an intention?”

“’Kerry, I want to be clear about my intentions here. It’s my intention to do what’s best for my family. And it’s my intention to protect my career. Those two things are really important to me.’”

She nodded, processing. “I see why that would create a sort of safety. It’s me speaking honestly.”

“About your intention.” I changed tone. “Then there’s the inverse intention statement. I use that one all the time. That’s where you get to say what your intention is not.”

Dripping a bit of venom, she smiled, “Like, ‘It’s not my intention to bring up that time you really screwed me about the software decision’?”

I laughed. “Not quite. But if that’s what I was thinking, I might say, ‘It’s not my intention to talk about this in a historical context. My intention is to focus on the future.’ I’d say what my intention isn’t and what it is.”

“Nice. What my intention is not. Never thought of that.”

“I often use it as part of the ‘Reflection.’ Here’s a real example. There’s someone I know who’s amazingly defensive. Her voice gets high and her shoulders go up and her face gets all stretched like bad plastic surgery.”

“Pretty picture!”

“Instead of reflecting to her – hey, you seem to be getting defensive, which would only cause her to get even more defensive! – I’ll say, ‘It’s not my intention to be on the attack or challenge you in any way.’ She’ll usually be defensive about that for a minute, but it lets the air out of things.”

“It makes it safe.”

“It makes it safe,” I agreed.

As she signed for lunch, she summarized our conversation. “There are really just three questions to ask. What’s going to make it safe? Why am I having this conversation? And what’s going on in the room right now? Then talk honestly about the last two.”

“Or maybe all three.”

“Maybe!”

“And if you do all that, you know what you get?” I asked.

“What?”

“The Look & Sound of Leadership.”

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