A Difficult Conversation Gets Back On Track, Even At Harvard, Of All Places


Dear readers,

I am filled with a sense of purpose. What follows is my re-written version of this Harvard Business Review article, which Google couldn’t help linking, much like relatives at Thanksgiving who vote for Trump and then feel compelled to talk about it.

If you read my previous post, about Facebook, you know it was inspired by a strange YouTube video about improving conversations, which was also linked by Google. Basically, somebody at Google is having a very hard time with conversations. That’s what I’ve gathered. This is just one day after the inexplicable YouTube link, and now they’re featuring HBR’s “8 Ways To Get A Difficult Conversation Back On Track.”

Let the healing begin!

(Fake article starts here. Now would be a good time to read the original.)

Despite our best intentions, conversations can frequently veer into difficult territory, producing frustration, resentment, and wasted time and effort. It can seem as if they aren’t worth having at all, and the temptation to become withdrawn, eating lunches alone at Quizno’s, can be almost overwhelming.

Take David, one of my coaching clients. Whenever I need an example of something, David comes immediately to mind. He’s an example of everything. He has, in addition to me, a life coach, a therapist, a nutritionist, a virtual assistant in India, a sports medicine consultant, and a girlfriend he will probably not marry. Recently appointed to a business school leadership role, he was eager to advance his strategic agenda, as was immediately obvious to everyone who met him, even the douches at Harvard Business School.

Advancing this agenda required building his team members’ commitment to and sense of ownership over the proposed changes. Wait, you might be asking, what team? What proposed changes? Nevermind. He was treasurer of the glee club or something. It doesn’t matter. The point is, when people were slow to step up and take on key tasks and roles, David felt frustrated by what he saw as their unwillingness to assume responsibility. He knew it was time to begin whining. That’s when he called me, and I can only describe the whining session that followed as…well, as epic. I had to plug my phone into a charger twice.

For example, when he spoke with Leela, the head of something or other, he shared his plan to increase revenue. She was just so damn happy to hear revenue generation ideas from a Business School first-year! After all, she’d have no idea how to do her own job without the help of folks like David, am I right?

David believed that the programs could accommodate 20% more students at the same staffing level with no loss of student satisfaction; Leela disagreed. David argued, and when Leela pushed back with concerns and counterarguments, he batted them away. Nothing got resolved, even though David batted those concerns away with panache. Well, that’s not true. One thing was resolved — namely, that Leela would never again take a meeting with a HBS student. Chet, her supervisor, could also go to hell, and we could quote Leela on that.

David believed that if he “won” an argument — through logic, force, or stamina — that meant his conversational partner had accepted his argument and would proceed to act upon their agreement. Instead, his team members left unconvinced and uncommitted. Most of them secretly suspected that David was the kind of kid who always broke out the Rules booklet during board games, and of course they were totally right.

David’s conversational inflexibility made it near impossible for him to lead change. Instead of motivating and facilitating progress, he exasperated and exhausted his team. And, again, these were members of a glee club. This wasn’t the exactly the White House Situation Room.

To have more-effective conversations, he needed to add more tools to his conversational toolbox and learn to use them skillfully. Below are eight strategies David put into practice, all of which you can use to get conversations back on track and then move them forward. None of them worked for David. Now he is a middle manager at a company that does some kind of cloud thing, like, in the cloud.

Shift the relationship from opposition to partnership. In the midst of a difficult conversation, it’s easy to see your conversational partner as your opponent. You may even start calling out scores, such as “Forty to luv,” or whatever. Try repositioning yourself — both mentally and physically — to be side by side with the other person, so that you’re focused on the same problem. Sit on the little unused edge of their chair if you can.

David told me that trying to convince his team to follow him felt like trying to break into a fortified castle. (Not just a regular castle. A fortified castle.) “How are you trying to get in?” I asked, since I’m always down to play “catch” with an extended metaphor at $200/hr. “I’m trying to break through the wall with a battering ram. It’s the only way in!” he said. He was making terrible “battering ram” motions with his whole body. Fortunately, the door to my office was closed.

David realized that instead of approaching conversations like a frontal assault on a guarded building, it was better to knock politely on the castle door, where he was more likely to be welcomed inside. This worked particularly well at the Excalibur Casino, where he was attending a conference, and then later at Medieval Times, where he forced everyone to go for his birthday. Once he re-entered the normal world of non-castle situations, of course, he was once again as lost as a young squire, far from his master’s fief, in a heathen land, with his helmet on backwards.


Reframe your purpose from convincing to learning. Conversations often go off track when we try to get someone to adopt our view or approach. When our purpose is to make another person see things our way, they are likely to resist — and arguing blocks learning and sends conversations into a ditch. (This ditch is located near the castle; it’s a short and very manageable walk from one to the other.) No matter how well-spoken and logical we may be, we can’t understand and solve the problem without exploring how the other person sees it. It helps to be folksy — “how the other fella sees it” has been the preferred nomenclature since the 1930s, when there was a hobo program at HBS. Loosen your grip on your own viewpoint, at least temporarily, so you can make space to take in your partner’s. Once they’ve convinced you that you’re wrong, everyone will be on the same side.

Whenever David fixated on persuasion as his conversational objective, he became ineffective. (Interestingly, he was also ineffective before this, and he remained ineffective long afterwards.) As Leela explained, “There’s a lot David doesn’t understand. It would be better if he would work with us rather than trying to ram his plans through, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in learning about our experience and expertise.” I had to hand it to David — his whole “battering ram” thing had definitely been noticed.

Now, however, David employs the mental trick of being a fly on the wall, a neutral, objective third party who’s witnessing the conversation via the thousands of tiny lenses on his compound eyes, as well as sensing the conversation using tiny hairs on his six legs. (Then he pretends he’s flying around the room.) From that mental perch up, he’s not trying to convince anyone of anything, and he doesn’t have the urge to defend his viewpoint. He instead forages for food and lays his eggs in fetid organic material.

Verbalize your intention. Use cliches to “spice up” the conversation. For example, you might say, “I’d like each of us to get all of our concerns out on the table, so that we can be confident we’re not missing anything.” If there is a table in the room, I find it helpful to point at it.

Avoid assumptions. Then, once you’ve successfully done this, end world hunger!

Examine the other’s perspective with openness and curiosity. To understand your conversational partner’s perspective, switch off defensiveness and turn on curiosity. Aren’t you curious about the tiny little inner lives of everyone at your office? This is your opportunity to hear what Norma in Accounting really thinks. Seize it.

Acknowledge your part. It’s very easy to identify what the other person has done wrong, and much harder to identify one’s own contribution to the problem. But acknowledging your part demonstrates how to take responsibility and encourages others to do the same. It’s a little game I like to call “the blame game,” and if you let the other side go first, don’t worry: you still get the last laugh.

Learn your A-BCDs. University of Washington psychologist John Gottman identified four communication behaviors that derail conversations so consistently that he refers to them as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” He is, ultimately, a man who has no idea what “the apocalypse” will actually be like. It won’t be like a difficult staff meeting, that’s for sure.

With a mnemonic mod-if-i-ca-tion to Gottman’s form-u-la-tion, I can be a poet, who doesn’t know it. I teach clients to avoid torpedoing conversations by “learning your A-BCDs,” by which I mean learning to Avoid Blame, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. Yeah, that’s right. I just straight up added an “S” word to my otherwise alphabetical list of pure nonsense. I’m a strategic coach! I can do anything!

Defensiveness shows up, like an ex at a New Year’s Party, when we deny responsibility for our own contribution to the difficult conversation. Leela contended that David should involve an assistant dean in the planning process. David then countered with a full dean. That’s when Leela brought out her ultimate weapon: a dean emeritus. David felt defensive at what he interpreted as a suggestion that he was cutting out important players. Actually, he wasn’t, since this was just a long and pointless discussion with a staffer in some HBS back office. But try explaining that to David! I couldn’t!

Stonewalling can take a number of forms, including passivity, avoiding a certain topic, refusal to participate in or contribute to discussion, or withholding relevant information. It may appear to be a young, beautiful woman, or an old herbalist, or even as some kind of panda. If you find yourself engaging in any of these behaviors, discuss the four apocalyptic behaviors with your team and agree that you’ll hold each other accountable for avoiding them. This process should only take a couple hours per meeting, after which you can get to the real issues.

Seek input to problem solving. For example, David eventually asked Leela, “What can I do to invite greater participation in the change process?” She was so surprised the first time he tried this that it took her a few minutes to respond. She had literally decided to begin sleeping right in front of David until he went away. Research scientists call this strategy “playing possum.” David appreciated her clever tactic and added it to his tool kit.

Practicing any of these techniques will increase your ability to have productive conversations about even the most difficult or contentious issues. Then try out a second technique. You can pick from any of the countless, highly mnemonic techniques I’ve outlined above, none of which anyone remembers for long, not even me. The goal is to incorporate all eight into your repertoire. Congratulations. You now have what it takes to graduate from Harvard Business School, if you also have $150,000. Leela accepts cashier’s checks only, and she will be in her office until five.