Hiding from a Tough Conversation?

Tough conversations trigger this primitive flight-fight response. Guards go up. Defensive responses pop into our head, and maybe we even put those thoughts into words. Every leader is faced with starting the tough conversation whether it’s about performance, attitude, relationships, expectations and a multitude of other topics for people who must work together.

Today’s tip is to start the conversation off differently. We often lead with “I” statements, but how often do these statements still take you down the road of interchanging defensive responses? Next time try something new. Start with the Third Story – a term coined in the book Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton and Heen.

Rather than making the “I” statement, tell the story from the view of an impartial observer. One that points out the difference between the tales of the two parties involved. For example, saying “It’s hard for me when you don’t meet the deadline” could lead to a mildly defensive response from a co-worker, “We get things done and I don’t think it’s a big deal.” The tough conversation becomes about defending these two positions. A third story might sound like, “We need to work together to meet our deadlines, but it seems we might go about that in different ways.”

By starting with an objective statement, defensiveness is minimized, the conversation can focus on looking for a solution that satisfies both parties. But, this “Third Story” is one strategy to try things a little differently. Here are a few other lead-ins that others have described to me:

  • Rather than rehashing or blaming, I ask “How could we have handled that better?”
  • Some cultures I work with tend to be indirect, so I take that into consideration.
  • Establishing a strong relationship of trust makes it possible to co-create solutions.
  • Pray and seek wisdom on what needs to be said versus what is my nature to just talk.

There are no easy answers to tough conversations — but it is a worthy discussion. What are lead-ins to difficult conversations that you have found to minimize defensiveness? Stuck in a tough conversation and don’t know where to start? Reach out to me for a quick power call to brainstorm some ideas.


Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center for Coaching Excellence.

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