10 Tips for Establishing Rapport with Others

10 Tips for Establishing Rapport with Others

Angie had been looking to create a foursome for a golf tournament that her company was holding. She had been having difficulty recruiting the final two participants needed to compete in the company tournament. She was a little perturbed with a close friend whom she had invited and had turned her down. After trying to convince her friend to come to the tournament, Angie asked her why she refused to play. Her friend responded with, “I think playing golf is just too “people-y.”

“What do you mean by that?” Angie queried.

“Now that my job lets me work from home, I’ve gotten used to being on my own. And the prospect of being with people that I don’t know is way out of my comfort zone.”

Has the imposed isolation of working at home made us less likely or more uncomfortable interacting face-to-face with others? So it seems for many of us.

Here are 10 tips for making connections and building rapport with those whom you may not know whether you are in person or communicating virtually.

  1. Initiate the conversation. If you are in a group of people that you don’t know and you’re waiting for someone else to initiate the conversation, you will likely wait a long time. Many people are uncomfortable speaking with others that they don’t know. Approach the person, introduce yourself, ask their name, and then ask something about themselves. It is a good idea to have a couple of questions in mind that you can use as icebreakers. For example, you might consider any of the following questions:

“What do you do for a living?” “What got you into this type of career?”

“Are you from this area?” “What brought you here?”

“How long have you been in this career field?” “What is one of your recent successes?”

“What do you like to do for fun?”

“What’s the best book you’ve read lately?”

Most people love to talk about themselves and are more than willing to give advice, talk about what they are working on, or share their triumphs. This same tactic works equally well with people you are meeting for the first time online.

  1. Take responsibility for the conversation. You can guide the conversation by asking questions. Before speaking with people, identify what it is that you would like to accomplish with the conversation. Are you interested in making new friends, learning something specific, being introduced to someone you know will be at the meeting, or establishing yourself as someone who can be viewed as a resource to others? Whatever the reason, clarifying your intent will help focus your purpose in holding the conversation.
  2. Call them by name. As you begin the conversation, introduce yourself and ask the person’s name. As soon as you hear their name, use it in a question that you will ask them. This will help you to cement their name in your memory. You may say something like, “So, Beverly, what brings you to this gathering this evening?” Or, “Beverly, how do you know the host?” Repeating the person’s name communicates that you are focused on them, and the repetition will help you to remember them.

When I taught at a university, one of my goals the first day of class was to memorize my students’ names. I had each student share their name, where they were from, and something interesting about themselves. As they were speaking, I was repeating their name to myself in my mind. As the classes got bigger, I created a story that I would fit them into, so I could remember each person. This took some practice, but it really helped to establish connection with everyone.

  1. Portray a positive demeanor. Be sure and smile while making brief eye contact with people. Keep your tone pleasant and take care not to bring up sensitive or potentially inflammatory topics. Make the other person the focus of the conversation, rather than talking a lot about yourself. People who share information about themselves generally feel that the conversation went well and that it was a positive interaction. When it’s time, be sure and exit the conversation with a positive statement, such as, “It was a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to seeing you again at our next meeting,” or “Thank you for your suggestion today; I look forward to adding it to my next presentation.”
  2. Notice others’ eye contact. If you are at a gathering with several people whom you may not know, and you are wondering with whom you could strike up a conversation, notice who makes eye contact with you. When this happens, you might give them a nod or a smile. They will usually nod or smile in return; then approach them, introduce yourself, and ask them their name and begin the conversation. I have even gone so far that when approaching someone, I have stated, “I just noticed you a moment ago and thought to myself, ‘That looks like an interesting person.’ Hi! I’m John Stoker. What is your name?” Then I will follow with a series of questions as we discussed earlier.

It is important to note that some people are uncomfortable with direct and unbroken eye contact. This is more about their personal communication preference than anything else. If you are speaking with someone who looks at you, then looks away, and then returns to giving you eye contact, mirror their behavior back to them. Also be aware of how close you are standing or sitting near someone. If you take a step toward the person, and you see their body start to lean away from you, you are too close to them. Take a step back, and you will see their body and demeanor relax. As everyone has different personal space requirements, be aware of your proximity and adjust accordingly.

If you are speaking with someone online, be sure to look at your camera when they are speaking. Let them know if you anticipate that you will need to take notes to capture what they are saying so they don’t think you aren’t focusing on the conversation. Connecting visually when online is often more difficult than if you were in person. Be aware of what you are doing and how you are coming across by remembering that the person you are speaking with has your image front and center on their screen.

  1. Adopt an attitude of curiosity. Each person is unique and diverse in what they have to offer. Let your curiosity drive your interactions with others. Having a goal to learn about others will help you think of things to talk about. For example, when I attend conferences where organizational development practitioners may be in attendance, I am always interested in their experience in leading change initiatives. So I will ask about the initiative, what they were trying to accomplish, what they did, what worked and what didn’t work, and what they would do differently if they could do it over again. Such conversations usually lead them to ask about my experience on the same topic. These interactions have often led to highly collaborative professional relationships that have paid huge dividends over time.
  2. Listen and be fully present. Be present while others are speaking, rather than thinking about what you might say next, who you want to speak to next, or anything else that pulls your focus away from your current conversation.

When you interact with others, there are many different communication channels that people use simultaneously. We often focus only on the message in their words, but we may miss messages from other sources. For example, what message is a person sending with their body language—their eyes, hands, stance, or gestures? Their tone of voice, their personal energy, and the emotion infused into their language tells you more information than just the words they are saying.

As you ask yourself these questions and make observations, you will start to notice these different messages. If you don’t know what their actions mean, you can ask by acknowledging their behavior followed by a question. For example, if you noticed someone rolling their eyes when you were sharing an idea, you might ask, “I noticed that you seem unconvinced about my suggestion. Is there something about my idea that you believe won’t work?” Or perhaps someone expressed a thought with a raised voice and more negative tone. You might say, “You seem to be frustrated with what’s happening. Would you share more about your thoughts?”

Increasing your awareness of other ways people communicate and learning to ask for additional information will help you both communicate more accurately.

  1. Ask questions. Even though I have mentioned this several times, asking questions should stand as a separate point. Ask open-ended questions—questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response. You might also try the “springboard” questioning technique to dive deeper on a subject. Spring boarding is taking something that someone says and using their statement as the basis for your next question. For example, let’s say that someone says, “Yikes! That meeting was so boring!” You would ask, “What was boring about the meeting?” They might say, “Well, for a start it was two hours long.” You might in turn ask, “Was it the length of the meeting or something else that was boring?” This skill is helpful in using your questions to dive deeper into a topic.

  2. Paraphrase your understanding. If you are in doubt, paraphrase what the other person said by simply restating in your own words what you think you have heard. It is as simple as stating, “So, if I have understood correctly….” Paraphrasing allows you to check your understanding and sincerely demonstrate that you have heard and understood the other person accurately.
  3. Express your gratitude. After speaking with a person, end your conversation by thanking them and expressing your appreciation for their contribution. It might sound like this, “Thank you for visiting with me today. I really appreciate you spending your time and sharing your experience with me. It was great to meet you.” This simple acknowledgment conveys your gratitude and ends the conversation on a positive note.

Meeting new people can be a challenge. Know that others are likely just as nervous to speak with people that they don’t know. People worry about how to start, what to say, and how to end. Following these simple tips will give you a framework for talking to others that will help you to establish rapport, have meaningful conversations, and forge connections with others. Meeting and speaking with people you didn’t previously know has the potential to grow your network, spark new friendships, and create opportunities for continued collaboration.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, “3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence.”

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

Are You Undermining Your Leadership Credibility?

Are You Undermining Your Leadership Credibility?

I have had the opportunity to coach a number of different leaders. Sometimes I am asked to observe how a leader interacts with their team members and then provide the leader with feedback about the impact of their behavior on the team. When I observe a lack of engagement in a leader’s meeting, I interview team members to discover the reasons for their lack of engagement in team meetings.
My observations have led me to identify a number of behaviors that can hurt a leader’s credibility with their team. I hope by sharing some common ways leaders undermine themselves, you can look for similarities that may be negatively impacting your leadership and make any needed course corrections.
1. “You can tell me anything!”
This statement is made to solicit input or feedback on a particular idea or course of action. However, sometimes leaders will completely discount the idea or opinion offered, especially if it’s something they don’t immediately agree with.  They don’t take the time to honestly consider the proffered information or to understand the reasoning behind it.  I have even observed leaders going so far as to label the idea as “stupid” or completely unacceptable.  Shutting down the conversation so abruptly and negatively will not promote continued sharing of ideas.  Rather, people will be so intimidated they will say little to nothing, or just tell you what they think you want to hear—correct or not.  People will learn that there is a price to be paid for speaking up and may decide it’s just not worth it.
2. Don’t coerce support.
Sometimes in an attempt to win approval for an idea or decision, leaders will say something like, “I need you to support my position today in the meeting. You have to back me up!” Often there’s an implied, “Or else.” Such behavior destroys candor, honesty and team morale. Negative interactions such as these will permeate your environment, and people will end up doing what they are told rather than honestly participating, speaking up and offering ideas.
3. Give up the rescue mission.
Sometimes leaders feel like it is their duty to rescue or excuse the poor performance of certain people. If a leader is on a rescue mission, then they tend to intervene to “save” the same individuals repeatedly. This leads to others interpreting that the leader is playing favorites. While such attempts to help others who are continuously struggling may seem like a nice idea at first, this behavior does not establish clear parameters of responsibility and accountability for the offending party.
In addition to enabling the poor performance of the individual, constant rescuing also signals to others that they don’t matter or their poor performance will also be forgiven. Rescuing a few may lead to a loss of morale, trust and discretionary effort from others.
4. Solicitation implies action.
When a leader solicits ideas or solutions, it is implied that the leader will do something with the ideas or solutions that are provided. This doesn’t mean that a leader has to implement or take action on every idea that is offered, but it does require that the leader share what they might do and why. This reinforces the importance of contribution and collaboration. To solicit ideas or solutions and then do nothing signals to individuals that their ideas are not important. Do this, and it won’t be long before people quit speaking up or offering ideas.
5. Avoid manipulation.
I have seen leaders ask people for ideas and then use them as evidence that their original idea was the best idea. This ends up feeling like manipulation. If leaders ask for ideas, then they should be open to exploring those ideas. I have often wondered if the act of asking is used as a strategy to create respect. Then, perhaps, the increased respect will lead to the acceptance of the leader’s idea. Rather than soliciting ideas on a decision you’ve already made, it would be better to simply make a command decision, explain the rationale behind the idea and then move on.
6. Make a decision.
I once noticed that a leader I was coaching seemed to go out of his way to avoid making a decision. I confronted him about his inaction and asked him why he was so slow to move forward and commit. He responded with two words: “Plausible deniability.” He explained that his organization did not tolerate mistakes well so, from his perspective, it was better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. By stalling, however, this leader was undermining his leadership credibility through his inaction and causing a loss of respect from both his team and his superiors.
7. Pick the proper place to give feedback.
The proper place to give any kind of negative feedback is in private! Some leaders feel it is appropriate to give negative or critical feedback to a person in front of others. I have had some leaders say that they like giving feedback in this way because it is motivating to others. Such behavior strikes fear into the heart of any conscious team member who learns to dread interactions with them. Sharing negative or critical feedback in front of others is highly disrespectful and does not inspire candor or openness. In fact, it will likely cause people to keep bad news to themselves and hide their mistakes.
8. Be vulnerable.
Some leaders think that to express their doubts, thoughts or insecurities is a sign of weakness. Consequently, such a leader may be more guarded in their interactions with others. Employees who work with a guarded leader tend to feel disconnected, have a hard time relating to the leader, and may even mistrust them.
When I asked them why they feel this way, they said that, because they don’t know their leader well, they don’t know how she or he will react, leading them to be more hesitant, especially when sharing a difficulty or challenge. While it seems somewhat counterintuitive, showing some vulnerability as a leader will encourage others to be more candid with you, to share questions and concerns, and to feel more connected with you — allowing you to have greater impact as a leader.
9. Recognize the repercussions of your behavior.
Sometimes I am asked to coach leaders who are oblivious about how their behavior affects others. This presents a real challenge. It is difficult for us to experience ourselves as others do — we all lack a degree of self-awareness. Effective leaders are great at soliciting feedback from others about what they do well and what they could improve. Doing so communicates to others that you are serious about being an effective leader, and you are willing to make changes to do so.
10. Keep your composure.
There is much to be said for keeping your composure when you are stressed out and everything seems to be going awry. Emotional intelligence is critical to being an effective leader. Losing your temper, calling people names, and using negative emotion to make a point will sabotage your credibility. Once you lose it, people timidly watch for the shoe to drop the next time that things don’t go as planned. They will struggle to trust and respect you. The next time you feel those “hot” emotions bubbling to the surface, remove yourself from the situation if at all possible and figure out how to calmly address the circumstances in a respectful way.
I believe that people are generally well-intended. However, seemingly small behaviors can negatively affect your leadership effectiveness. Take the time to candidly assess your leadership practices and make any needed changes, and you’ll go a long way toward increasing your credibility and becoming the type of leader that people will respect and work hard for.

Do you struggle with communicating effectively? Do you need to improve your emotional intelligence?

Join me for my complimentary webinar, "3 Must Know Principles for Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence."

We will walk through practical ways to defuse defensiveness in others as well as yourself. You will learn the 5 values that create the majority of workplace challenges and disruptions.

Love or Gratitude? 9 Questions to Increase Your Gratitude

Love or Gratitude? 9 Questions to Increase Your Gratitude

Last week my daughter came to me and asked, “Daddy, which is greater, love or gratitude?” I was initially shocked at the depth of her question. After thinking for a moment, I responded with, “Well I think probably love is greater.” She responded by stating, “Oh no, Dad. You can’t love something that you are not grateful for.” End of discussion. Since this interaction, I have spent some time contemplating gratitude and whether love leads to gratitude or if gratitude is the foundation of love. The whole exercise has made me think about what leads to our gratitude for the life we lead and those in it.

Given that this weekend marks the celebration of the Thanksgiving Holiday in the U.S., it is a good time to consider the following questions to evaluate and amplify your sense of gratitude.

1. Do you consider what you could lose? Often we don’t appreciate what we have until we have lost it. Rather waiting until what we have is no more, you might consider what you have and imagine what your life would be like if you no longer had those things you cherished and enjoy. Doing so will add an increased measure of gratitude for those things that typically go unnoticed daily.

2. Do you consider your opportunities? We might feel more grateful if we took the time to contemplate the opportunities we have. If we stopped to identify our opportunities, perhaps we would be more inclined to take advantage of what we might have missed in the past. A heightened awareness of what is possible might serve as the motivator to engage in something that is personally worthwhile.

3. Do you observe to thank? There are many opportunities to thank others for all that they do and the value that they contribute at home or at work. In order to verbally recognize or acknowledge someone’s efforts, you must take time to see and notice what they do. Pay attention to individual behavior and the positive consequences of that behavior–then say something. Verbalizing your appreciation will make all the difference to those with whom you interact.

4. Do you look to fill the needs of others? The answer to this question requires that you get outside yourself and notice how you might help another. Rendering acts of service for those who might not be able to do something for themselves elevates others while also elevating yourself. Being of service to others has an interesting way of teaching you something about yourself and your own circumstances and opportunities. As Aesop said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

5. Do you spend time alone in nature? There is something about being in nature that quiets the mind and helps us to refocus on those things that matter most. When we are caught up the frantic pace of our own lives, we often miss the solemn beauties in the natural world that have the power to lift us out of the mundane and open our minds and hearts to our possibilities. Taking a quiet walk or watching the night sky has a way of fostering gratitude for all that encompasses our life’s experience.

6. Are you engaged in a good cause? Not just any cause, but a good cause. Something that will make a positive difference in the world. Such a cause should lead to positive change in yourself and others. Spending time doing something worthwhile is not only a great way to get outside yourself but also increases a sense of appreciation in others.

7. Is your personal purpose inclusive of others? One thing you might do is to identify where you spend your time. If none of your time is spent in a way that provides you the opportunity to lift the lives of others, then perhaps your life’s purpose should be reexamined. Someone once said that the only thing that we take with us when we leave this frail existence is our knowledge and the quality of our relationships. Personal success is usually achieved through association with others.

8. Do you have an attitude of gratitude? When things are not going as you had hoped they would, adopting a positive attitude is hard to do. But even when we are challenged, those challenges are opportunities to grow and develop. Everything appears as we perceive it to be. This forces us to celebrate what we have rather than to grieve over what we don’t. Developing a positive attitude requires you to assess your circumstances and make adjustments to the way you see your world and react to it.

9. Do you believe that you have enough? If we always focus on what we lack, then we don’t realize what we have. One of my sons had the opportunity to go to Africa for a few weeks to build a school. When he returned, he told us stories of some wonderful families that live in huts with dirt floors and tin roofs. He shared that by comparison he realized that he lived in a palace to what others had. He had a great experience helping to serve those who had less than he did and returned much more grateful for his life.

Taking the time to give thanks and celebrate gratitude for all that we have is an important exercise that requires personal awareness and action. The opportunity to uplift others, elevate the quality of our lives, and increase our happiness is well worth the effort.

To Be an Effective Leader, Sometimes You Need to Give Yourself a Time Out

To Be an Effective Leader, Sometimes You Need to Give Yourself a Time Out

I had just finished a difficult meeting with our legal team about an infringement on our company’s copyrights. I came into my next meeting without signaling to my team what I was feeling in the moment, nor did I take the time to ground myself and shift out of my current emotional state.
It didn’t take long before one courageous team member said, “John, I think you are coming in too hot for us right now.” When I asked him what he meant, he talked about my tone, tempo and physical behaviors that clearly signaled something negative was going on with me. I asked the rest of the team if they had the same interpretation about my current behavior. They replied in the affirmative. I apologized and told them what was going on. Doing so allowed me the time to re-center myself and set my feelings aside for the time being.
We often don’t see ourselves the way we are seen by others. Becoming more self-aware, especially when our negative feelings start to emerge, is the first key to managing ourselves more effectively and becoming more emotionally intelligent. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage our own feelings, as well as influence the feelings and our relationships with others.
As leaders, we can’t afford to negatively impact those we need to work with to achieve our goals. Here are nine questions for improving your self-awareness, especially when your negative emotions start to take center stage in your interactions with others.
1. Do you let your feelings get the best of you?
Sometimes our negative or “hot” emotions occur so quickly that they completely hijack our rationality. Part of being more in control or rational in any given situation is identifying beforehand those situations or people who may push your buttons. By recognizing potential triggers, you can do a lot to prepare yourself to positively handle the situation if it should start to take a turn for the worse.
2. Do your unmet expectations stress you out?
When we suppress our feelings, they tend to build up and usually emerge under stress. As a leader, it can be common for your expectations to be unfulfilled, which can result in a variety of harsh or negative emotions. In order to remedy this situation, examine the directions you gave and the expectations you had. Were they clear? Specific? Effectively communicated? If they weren’t, you may be at least partially to blame for the unsatisfactory results. Next, take a look at the source of stress and the thinking or judgment that created it. Once you have surfaced your thinking, examine it for accuracy.
3. Do you understand what is contributing to your feelings?
Emotionally intelligent people know how to examine their feelings and the thinking that gives rise to their emotions. They also know how to challenge the accuracy of their thinking as well as their emergent feelings. This enables them to correctly describe how they feel and shift out of unproductive feelings into more constructive ways of dealing with others.
4. Do you know what violated values are driving your behavior?
Part of being emotionally intelligent is knowing what is important to you — what values you possess. When you begin to react emotionally, it is usually because you perceive others are saying or doing something to violate one or more of your values. Taking the time to identify the standards and principles important to you will help you determine why you are feeling the way you are and whether others are legitimately calling into question what you value.
5. Do you lack patience or become irritated when others don’t agree with you?
Some people are quick to judge others and certain situations. When this happens, these people tend to only focus on the data that supports their point of view. They often refuse to look at other perspectives rationally or examine the facts from another angle. To avoid this from happening to you, take a step back and ask yourself, “What’s another reason this person might think this way?” or “Why would they say or do that?” You can also increase your understanding by asking the other person clarifying questions to confirm you have your facts straight.
6. Are you unforgiving of others?
Whether or not you were intentionally harmed, it is not uncommon for people to maintain their negative judgments and keep a running score of any perceived injustices. Not letting go of these negative feelings and thought patterns will harm you and color all future interactions that you have with others. Forgiving others will free you of the negative judgments and feelings that may be keeping you from understanding and connecting with them.
7. Do you know how you are perceived by others?
Because I am quite animated and passionate, I know that my actions and tone of voice are often interpreted as frustration or anger by the more quiet members of my family. Knowing this helps me to adapt my style of delivery so as to not be misinterpreted by them. One way to check how you are coming across is to notice how others are responding to you. If they begin to become animated, increase their volume or energy, they may be matching the emotional intensity of your message. Or, if they are shutting down, have flat or short responses, turn away or avoid any eye contact, then you know your mode of delivery is having a negative impact on them.
8. Can you manage the negative emotional reactions of others?
As I mentioned earlier, negative emotional reaction signals the perception of a violated value on the part of the emotional person. It’s important to learn to recognize the emergence of these feelings before they become unmanageable. How are they acting? Reacting? Is their response different than you expected? What are they demonstrating through their vocal tone, countenance, body language, and verbiage? If they are defensive or otherwise acting in a negative way, you will need take steps to defuse this reaction through the use of questions that explore what is important to the person. This is an important skill in resolving conflict while maintaining the current relationship.
Say to the person, “I can see you’re (state their emotion).” Follow that statement up with one of several questions:
“What is going on?”
“What did you want or expect?”
“Why was that so important?”
Asking these types of questions allows you to explore the person’s story, what they wanted and didn’t get, and what they really valued in the situation you are exploring.
9. Do you take things personally?
If you are the type of person who is easily offended, you need to check whether that offense was intentional. Many times offense is taken where none was given. If you have an overly critical view of yourself, then your behavior and the actions of others may become the basis of your emotional reaction. Whether you end up blaming yourself or others does not remedy the fact that you may be overacting to the words and actions of others. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is one of the easiest ways to avoid taking offense. Reminding yourself that there is often an unexpressed reason behind their behavior will help you stop the negativity from escalating.
When we are facing challenges and obstacles in our interactions with others, it is easy to come in “too hot” and say or do things that can cause an undesired result. It is important to recognize what you do, how you do it, and how others are responding to you. If you are unaware, those you are trying to understand and work and connect with, will either shut down or match the intensity of your emotional reaction. When this occurs, people won’t engage in a productive way. Increasing your self-awareness is the first step in maintaining your cool and treating others with the respect and the dignity that they deserve, leading to a more productive and successful outcome.
10 Tips on How to Have a Difficult Conversation

10 Tips on How to Have a Difficult Conversation

When I conducted research for my book, Overcoming Fake Talk, I was interested to discover why so many people were afraid to talk about certain topics — what I call undiscussables. Undiscussables include anything that we think and feel but choose not to share. In short, undiscussables are something we keep to ourselves.

What my research uncovered was that people I observed were often afraid to talk about what matters to them most.

Some were afraid there would be negative consequences resulting from speaking their minds. Others were afraid of how people might react and the conflict that might result. Still others would argue that they didn’t know how to hold a difficult conversation. They just didn’t know how to do it “right.” Others feared that their listeners might not like them if they shared their concerns.

Whether there were grounds for any of these reasons or not was irrelevant. Because, when something is real to us, we end up believing those thoughts, even if they aren’t based in facts. If we try to hold a tough conversation, and it doesn’t go well, we use that negative experience to support our initial belief that discussing that topic was futile in the first place.

Or, worse, we never even make the attempt to talk about a tough topic. The result? Everything stays the same or may actually get worse.

Here are 10 tips to help you overcome your fears and successfully navigate a difficult conversation:

1. Prepare yourself. Identify how you feel and what you are thinking about the current situation or person involved. Once you surface your thinking, ask yourself, “Is my thinking absolutely true?  What facts or data support my perception?” If you can find evidence that challenges your thinking, then it’s time to reevaluate your position.

This reassessment should take the edge off of your feelings or your negative judgments about the situation. It should also help you adopt a spirit of discovery going into the conversation that will help you be more attentive to learning what you may not know or understand.

2. Identify your purpose. Identify what it is that you would like to achieve by holding the conversation. Be as specific as you can. Remember that if you don’t know what you want, then you cannot achieve what you have not clearly delineated as your ultimate goal.

3. Think through the context. Here are some questions that should help you prepare for a difficult conversation by understanding the context:

  • Topic — What is the topic of this conversation?
  • Person — How might this person respond to the topic?
  • Purpose — What do I want to see as an outcome of this conversation?
  • Past — What do I know about the situation? What are the facts?
  • Plan — What is the plan for achieving the desired objective of this conversation?
  • Assumptions — What assumptions am I making about this person in this situation?

Taking a minute to answer each question will help you anticipate the other person’s reactions and remain in control throughout the conversation. Reviewing the context will also lessen any fears you may have about just “winging it.”

4. Gain your listener’s attention. To do this, you will want to use an Attention Check. An attention check entails simply saying, “I would like to talk about … Can we do that?” Make this initial statement in a calm, non-judgmental way so as to gain the interest of your listener.

5. Share facts first. Begin by sharing the facts using an “I-statement” such as, “I noticed that you haven’t given me the report that you said you would give me first thing this morning.” In this way, you can distinguish between what is fact and what is interpretation or opinion.

6. Share thinking second. Follow your fact “I-statement” with an “I-statement” that includes your thinking, such as, “I am wondering if something came up that kept you from delivering the report on time.” Always give the person the benefit of the doubt when sharing your thoughts. For example, it would do no good to say something like, “I think that you are lazy and instinctively poor as a planner.” Say that, and the conversation is over. Your listener’s brain will move to self-protective mode and the conversation will degrade into a defensive battle for supremacy where both parties lose.

7. Ask questions to gain understanding. After using an Attention Check and sharing facts and thinking, you are ready to engage in discovery. The purpose of this step in the conversation is to learn what you know or don’t know. For example, in the previous scenario, you might ask, “What happened?” or, “What kept you from being able to meet the deadline?” Try to ask as many questions as you can to completely understand the other person and his or her point of view.

8. Clarify your understanding. In order to clarify, simply summarize the other person’s point of view first and then your own. After summarizing, end in a question by asking the person if you have understood correctly. For example, “You were unable to get the report to me this morning because another manager asked you for the budget. You initially felt that you could complete both requests, so you didn’t ask for an extension. Is that correct?”

The reason to summarize the other person’s perspective is, first, to gain his or her attention; then, the person will listen to you talk about your perspective. By ending in a question, you’ll be asking the person to confirm or disconfirm what you have understood. This creates respect and signals that your understanding of the other person is important to you.

9. Build a plan. The whole reason for talking about a tough topic is that you want something to change. It is helpful if you have a plan in mind before holding the conversation. This will reduce any anxiety you may experience due to a lack of preparation. However, don’t be surprised if you find your original plan won’t work due to what you’ve learned by asking questions. Apply your learning and adjust your plan as needed to benefit both parties going forward.

10. Gain commitment to the plan. Discuss your plan; then ask your listener if he or she is committed to the course of action you have created together. And watch for a reaction. If the person hesitates, takes a long pause or offers an eye-rolling statement about personal commitment, something is amiss.

Go back to asking questions to understand the response you just saw. Make sure that both of you are dedicated to your plan of action so you aren’t talking about the same topic again weeks later. Also, don’t hesitate to follow up to see if the plan you’ve agreed on is working or needs to be further adjusted.