Fred Kofman describes how to manage difficult conversations. He offers solutions to improve them by a change in our assumptions and behavior.

By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

 “I don’t care how much you know,
until I know how much you care.”
Steven Covey

A “difficult conversation” is difficult because we feel threatened. Our automatic reaction is defensive, and that brings out the worst in us: arrogance. We believe that we know what is really happening and what needs to happen. Each one’s goal becomes to prove to the other that “I am right and you are wrong, so you should do what I say.” When two people meet with this goal in mind, the only possible outcome is a clash followed by overpowering or by stalemate.

So we hide our thoughts and feelings. We try to be “nice and constructive.” But we know we are not being honest. We also know that without our truth we can’t solve our problem. And without us being present we can’t have a real relationship. As I described here, the conversation fails to meet the mark on the dimensions of the “I” (self), the “We” (relationship) and the “It” (task).

Make Your Difficult Conversation Better

To improve these conversations, we need to change our assumptions and our behavior. We need to assume that we don’t know the whole truth and that our counterpart can give us significant information. Thus, our goal becomes to explore her reasoning, to understand why she thinks what she thinks. We also need to assume that our counterpart doesn’t know the whole truth and that we can give her significant information. Thus, our goal becomes to help her understand why we think what we think, to explain our reasoning without falling into advocacy. Once we understand each other, we can negotiate our differences and look for win-win solutions.

More deeply, we need to realize that cooperation stems from solidarity, not self- righteousness. Mutual trust and respect are at the core of every productive conversation. Before we can jump into the task, we need to establish a context of care.

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