How do you initiate a difficult conversation? Going in with guns blazing rarely results in a successful outcome. Interpersonal psychologist and martial coach John Gottman coined the term “soft startup” to describe the process of initiating a difficult conversation with care, compassion and empathy:
1) Start with something positive that conveys your intent to reach a collaborative and win-win resolution–but note that this doesn’t mean inventing something nice to say. Be honest and direct about your feelings by not attacking, belittling or putting down their positions. Use the 5-1 rule for creating a positive climate for interacting and discussion the issues. you’re struggling for words, simply saying that you want to have this conversation because you care about the organization, team and especially the other person and your shared understanding can be helpful in moving forward to reach agreed to goals and process for accomplishing them.
2) Use statements beginning with “I” that express your perspective and feelings, rather than statements beginning with “you” that focus on the other person and put them on the defense and argumentative position. Avoid the YES, But Game of rebuking their ideas or feelings. And state the truth about situation is that there are many ways to solve the issues, rather than one of us being right and the other wrong. Don’t manipulate or assume that your perspective is the only possible one available for solving the stalemate or conflict in front of both parities. Ask them what fairness and agreeable solution would be from their point of view?
3) Don’t make assumptions about the other person’s point of view and perspective. They may not even be aware that their style and manner of communicating is a problem, or it may be that they are taking a fixed mindset set because of upbringing, misinformation or lack of alternatives in their interpersonal skills tool basket, don’t judge them for these factors try to educate or persuade them with new information. You maybe surprised at their openness for change if approached in the right way. Don’t argue or be aggressive try to approach them with empathy and understanding to reach common ground. Don’t make the conversation personal, just calmly and concisely present your position and ask what would it take for them to see your side of the issue and crave a reasonable plan to move forward.
4) Be direct and honest. Don’t withhold information or try to be cute in your approach. These approaches will lead to mistrust and you will be seen as not authentic in your treatment of them. State your request clearly, firmly and respectfully –while demonstrating understanding through active listening by restating and reflecting their comments and feelings. You’re your openness by acknowledging your willingness to create a win-win negotiation.
This is just the beginning of the process, of course, and you’ll need a number of additional skills in your communication repertoire to succeed. But Gottman’s research shows that a soft startup is a crucial step in resolving disagreements successfully.