Thirty seconds isn't a lot of time for Peyton Manning to quarterback his team for a winning touchdown, but 60 minutes was plenty of time for me to give a game plan to the 400 executives who wanted to know how to handle difficult conversations. In fact, it is one of the most frequents topics that I am asked to speak on by Corporate America.
Looking over the crowd, I called out: "Whether it's in the boardroom or bedroom, we all face difficult conversations." Nobody could deny that point, but I continued to run with, "Whether it's with your boss, colleague, assistant, or your partner, child, parent, or next door neighbor, we've all had difficult conversations that evoke thoughts and feelings of frustration, anger, fear, and yes, nauseating to some.
"There's no guarantee, but there are a few plays I've developed that can help you make these conversations a lot less difficult and a lot more successful." I was already at midfield. I began my play calls, all easy to execute, at least for a pro like me and Peyton:
I started running: "What makes it a difficult conversation?" Is it the content you have to deliver, like telling the person he smells? Sometimes its the relationship, as when you have to criticize your boss. Or, is it because the recipient gets defensive, be it angry, tearful or simply withdraws? Once you know what makes it difficult, you can start to develop a strategy. I gained a quick 12 yards with that call.
Next: "What is your goal — what do you want the conversation to accomplish?" Too many people go into the conversation without knowing what they want to achieve. Thus, they scramble around but often end up losing ground. Knowing what you want the conversation to accomplish allows you to develop a strategy and pick up ground, like Peyton and I typically do.
Keeping the drive going, I called: "Anticipate all the defenses the recipient might throw at you." Anger, tears, and denial can blitz anyone, but also be prepared for silence. By anticipating recipient defensiveness, you can prepare for it and be ready if and when it occurs. Another key point is to know that the faster you read the recipient's defensive moves, the faster you can use them as a cue that you are being ineffective and can then call an automatic that redirects the conversation to productive ground. The trap most fall into is to tell the recipient, "Hey you are getting defensive." This statement only increases the defensiveness you are trying to overcome and more importantly does not acknowledge the truth — that you, the communicator, are the one who is being ineffective — if you were effective, the recipient would be listening. This point took me into the red zone.
A fast call: "Ask yourself, what have you already tried?" This increases your awareness to the losing plays you have already attempted and there is no need to try them again. If you can't think of any new ones, forget your ego and ask others.
Looking at the clock, I saw it was time to cross the goal line, and I had the play that never fails. "Finally, remember to be strategic in all of your difficult conversations. Do this by asking: 'How can I communicate this information so the recipient will be receptive?'" Your answer will help you communicate the most crucial communication and overcome any defensive behavior thrown at you.
I was in the end zone and the crowd was going nuts. It was over, but I still went for a two-point conversion. The crowd hushed as I asked: "What do you prefer: Peyton Manning scoring a touchdown or having a plan to handle your most difficult conversations?" With Tebow enthusiasm, the crowd chanted the second option. I finished: "Well, shouldn't I get 20 million too?"
If you need a specific play for handling a difficult conversation, let me know and I will design one for you.