Tips for More Effective and Constructive Communication

Don’t Play Chinese Whispers in Difficult Conversations!

I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant” (Alan Greenspan, American Economist) 

It’s so easy to mishear and misunderstand what others are saying to us and vice verse, particularly when tensions are starting to rise. Here’s a simple approach to help with this.
Watch the video (4 min) or see the transcript below:

Video Transcript

Hi, Mary Rafferty here…

Let me ask you, the last time you were on the phone to somebody and you were passing on information about your contact details, for example, your email address or your phone number, how did they respond? They probably said something like, “let me just check I’ve got that right…” and called back your phone number to you and then you had a chance to confirm or correct any digit they might’ve gotten wrong.
Why do we do that? Because it’s so easy for things to get lost in translation. That’s why the kid’s birthday game, Chinese Whispers is so much fun.

But this common sense approach of repeating back to somebody what it is we’ve heard them say and making sure we’ve accurately understood that, isn’t just for situations where we’re communicating phone numbers or credit card details. It’s very useful in many contexts, particularly where there might be some tension or disagreement creeping into a conversation.

Mediators do this all the time. Instead of jumping in with a response, immediately you can say something like:
“John, let me check that I’ve understood what you’re trying to say there. Are you saying you find the deadlines are too tight?” or
“Am I right that the way you see it, you’re not so sure that this project is going to work as well as it should work? Have I got that right?”
and then you wait and check with John, have you understood what he wanted to say. He might correct something and clarify something and then you check in again and then only then, when you fully understand what he’s trying to say, move on.

So why is this such a useful approach?
Well, first of all, our capacity to mishear, misinterpret and put our own spin on what it is we’re hearing other people say is so strong, particularly when there is tension or we are starting to get a bit irritated or having a bit of resistance to what the other person is saying.
By stopping, checking in ‘let me see if I  understand what you’re trying to say…” it reduces that interference. This greatly increases the chances that we’re going to accurately hear what the person is saying and be able to tune into where they’re at and therefore our responses will be more appropriate.

This simple approach of truly and genuinely listening and really trying to understand what the other person is trying to say and being open to hear that even if we don’t agree with it, makes it much more likely that they in turn will listen to what we have to say and try and understand that. And isn’t that what we’re really trying to do in conversations regardless of what the subject or the topic is.

So the key takeaway from this video is to start to use the phrase or use your own wording, something along the lines of,
“Let me check that I’ve fully understood what you’re trying to say…”
“Let me clarify… “ or “If I’ve got that right, are you saying ABC, have I got that right?
or “Can you help me understand because I  think I’m missing something…” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how positively that impacts on your conversation.

I hope you found this video useful.
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Trying to Get Your Point Across But They Won’t Listen?

Ever feel you’ve hit a brick wall (or an iceberg!) when trying to get your point across to someone? No matter what you say they just won’t listen. Here’s another way to think about how to handle this situation:

Video Transcript

Mary Rafferty here, in today’s video I want to share an analogy that can be very useful when you find yourself in a conversation with somebody and you have the sense they are not listening to you.
Perhaps you’re trying to get them to understand your viewpoint.
Perhaps it’s about changing what they are doing or how they’re doing something.
But they are not taking on board what you say. You keep explaining why e.g. ‘here’s a better way of doing …’ and they just argue back.
You have that sense you are meeting with a brick wall.

I remember when I was a child and would go to my parents and ask them for something for example, can I go and visit a friend or can I go to a party or can I buy x or y. They would say ‘No’ and I would say ‘But why?’ and they would respond
‘Because that’s the why’
I remember that being one of the most frustrating and disempowering things they could say. You really have a sense of not knowing where else to go with your request when someone says that to you.
It can be like that also in these kinds of conversations.

I did some coaching recently with a manager – let’s call him Paul. He is a team leader in a client services organisation. The organization is changing and part of that change is how the frontline staff are interacting with the clients.
Paul was having a conversation about this with one staff member – Jim. He was explaining the need to have a broader focus, to be seeing more clients, as part of their role and that they needed to be involving other services too in supporting these clients.
But Jim wasn’t having any of it and not open to these changes.
Paul would make another argument for example about how such a change would be good for the client, for the organization and that times are changing and things have to move forward. But Jim wasn’t having any of it. Paul felt a real sense of ‘because that’s the why’ from Jim’s responses.
The metaphor of an iceberg is one of my favorite to depict what happens in these kinds of negotiations or conversations. One tenth of an iceberg is above water and nine tenths below. It’s a little bit like that in these kinds of conversations. Only a small part of what Jim is saying is expressing what’s really going on beneath the surface for him.
In other words, what are the true drivers behind his resistance?

It might be his thinking, his feelings, his concerns, or maybe it’s about his values. Maybe it’s about his identity, how he sees himself. Or perhaps for Jim, it’s the interpretations he has on what the change might mean for him. All of that thinking is more than likely not being expressed in the arguments that Jim is making to Paul.

So why might it be useful for Paul to understand what’s happening for Jim beneath the iceberg?

Three reasons:.

  1. Paul needs to have more insight and more understanding of what it was that was blocking Jim, what the  underlying reasons behind his resistance were. Was it about fear of change? Was it about his values – perhaps he saw his role in a different way? Maybe he felt that the new version that Paul had proposed of seeing lots of clients and having what might seem like a superficial interaction with lots of clients was contravening his values.
    Was it perhaps fear of not having the skills and capabilities required? Was it a fear of too much work?
    Until Paul knows, he cannot address those concerns or move the conversation forward in a useful way that starts to look at what would work for both people.
  2. While I’ve never used the ‘Because that’s the why’ phrase in a workplace, I have been guilty of using it as a parent, with my girls when they were smaller. When I did they would ask me what the reason was…what was my ‘why’.  I would find that I’d have to really think about this…why did I not want to let them go to the party or to visit the friend.
    That’s very often in the case of Jims of this world. They haven’t thought through why they are resisting something. They don’t think it’s a good idea but haven’t reflected on why this is, for themselves. So by Paul asking about this and exploring it, it helps Jim understand himself better too.
  3. The third reason is that asking these kinds of questions and showing interest in Jim and his point of view, there will be much better connection and goodwill between him and Paul. And of course good will and connection are an essential prerequisite for any kind of collaboration and cooperation.

So the key takeaway from this video: Most of you will find yourselves in one of those push-pull conversations where you have met ‘iceberg’. You’ve probably started to build one around yourself as well, because in the case above, Paul was also getting quite stuck-in about his way of doing things.

When that happens, somebody’s going to have to get out there with the pick axe and start asking questions. You have to build some mutual understanding first of all, before trying to find ways to meet everybody’s needs and find a workable action plan to move forward.

I hope you found this video useful.
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Dealing with a Difficult Person? Start Here:

Video Transcript

Hi, Mary Rafferty here.
In this video today I want to talk to you on the topic of dealing with difficult people. This is a very broad subject and there are so many variables that will influence how best to respond or deal with any particular situation where you’re experiencing another person as difficult. For example, it depends on whether it’s in the workplace, at home, your role in the conversation, the purpose of the conversation, etc. It’s impossible to cover all of those in this short video.
Instead I want to point out a couple of underlying principles that regardless of the situation or the person, these will hold true.

All of us have this box or this category in our minds, let’s call it the “difficult person” box and there are a few people in our environment, whether it’s at work, at home, in the community that all of us have parked in this category.
We’ve had a few encounters with them.
It has been difficult for whatever reason and we have then assigned them a place in this little room.
It would be lovely if we could put them in the room, mentally at least, turn the key and never have to deal or interact with them again. That would be fine if we have that choice and sometimes we do have that choice.
But in a lot of situations these are people we work with or they are people we live with. So we don’t have the choice to say “okay, I’m not going to talk to that person again…I’m not going to deal with them again”

So let me challenge you a little on this.
What if I was to say, actually there’s no such thing as a fixed category of difficult people?
Now I’m not trying to be Pollyanna-like about this.
Neither am I saying that there aren’t situations and times where everyone experiences someone else in their work or their home life or wherever, as very frustrating, very annoying and difficult to be around.
Perhaps they say things that are very hurtful.
Perhaps they say things that are very irritating. All of us have those experiences of a few other people in our environment. But having this very fixed category in our mind of the ‘difficult persons’ box that we assign the same people to, over and over again is really not very helpful.

Let me explain.
We like to think that our minds work a little bit like a camera. So there is a tree in the field. We take our camera, we snap, and then we have an accurate representation of the tree.
We imagine our minds are similar. We see a person out there, they are a ‘difficult person’ and we have captured an accurate image of this ‘difficult’ person and it’s a very fixed solid reality.
In fact, our mind is more like a virtual reality headset.
So we’re not actually experiencing the objective reality out there. Yes, it’s happening, but we’re creating our own internal experience of what’s happening outside us.

So you might wonder…virtual reality headset camera, so what?
Well, that has a number of significant positive implications for how you deal with difficult person or indeed any challenge in your life.
You see the more you can start to grasp that our experience is internally generated, that we live in in a thought-created reality, it just allows us to relax our grip on this very fixed, solid idea of this person being a ‘difficult’ person.
Yes, you’ll have memories of things that happened. You’ll have worries and concerns about something in the future, but the more you can start to see that that’s a transient and thought-generated noise that’s constantly going through our minds, the greater sense of ease, composure, sense of balance that you will have regardless of the behavior of the other person.

You’ll begin to see that if you’re in a more relaxed state of mind, if you’re less caught up in the noise in your head about that person, then you’re going to be different in those interactions.

You’re going to be more open and be less defensive.
You’re going to be less wary, less on edge.
You’re going to have greater sense of goodwill towards that person. That will impact on the interactions you have with them.
Secondly, for the time you’re not in that person’s presence you’ll be much less impacted. So often people say to me, you know, it’s that I’m worrying and thinking about this person when I’m at home in the evening. This person is taking up too much space in my head.
That’s not going to be happening as much.
Instead, you will begin to see that this is just all part of the continuous noise that everybody’s experiences about difficult situations in their lives. When you don’t take it on and take it all too seriously, it sort of disappears by itself.

You will find yourself less caught up worrying about their behavior or worrying about the next interaction or ruminating on the last interaction you’ve had with them.
You’re just going to be in a more resourceful, more open, more relaxed state of mind.
Because you are more resourceful, then you’re going to be having much more effective and useful thoughts and ideas about how to deal with the person in the way that gets the best outcome for whatever situation you’re in.

So the key takeaway from this video is that, yes, there are individuals out there who for one reason or another, all of us will find at some point in our lives very difficult.
We will fall into a groove of very negative thinking and a very negative story about that person and their behaviors.
That in turn will have a knock on effect on your own sense of wellbeing and composure, certainly when you are around that person.
It will also have a negative fallout in on the interactions with them and it leaves you feeling unresourceful and unresilient at a time when you most need to be in a good state of mind. So the first thing you need to do, is to step back and realise the extent to which you are getting caught up in this negative story. Only then can you access your own inner resourcefulness and resilience to best manage the situation.

So if you found this video helpful and someone is coming to mind that you’d like some help in dealing with, please drop me an email at

You might find this blogpost here helpful also.

If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it using the social media buttons above or forward to a friend.

Thanks for watching!

How do you listen if someone is upset, annoyed and off-loading on you?

Listening is a much-lauded but greatly under-used skill – and not because we don’t know how to listen well.  

Instead, it’s that so easily fall into the trap of trying to ‘fix’ the situation rather than taking the time to let a person talk (and think it) through and in doing that, find their own way to sort the situation.


Video Transcript:

Hi, this is Mary Rafferty here and welcome to this short video on listening.
What I want to talk to you today about is listening in the context of a difficult conversation where somebody might be annoyed,  upset or angry. It might be with you, it might be with another person, but either way they’re coming to you to unload and unburden themselves.
The question is how do we listen in this kind of a conversation? So ‘listening’ is a really important skill and we’ve all heard the term ‘active listening’. But my experience is that a lot of us don’t listen very well and it’s actually a very under-used and underrated skill. That’s because we have a sense that when we’re listening we’re just sitting there nodding, not saying anything. We’re not really adding any value to the situation or to the conversation. We’re just letting the person go on. We wonder how is that helping solve the problem or get this situation dealt with so we can then move onto the next challenge we have to deal with.

So this brings us to the question, what actually is our role when somebody comes to us with a problem, what am I trying to do as the listener? And of course the problem is that for a lot of people, the default mode we go into, is that I have to fix this situation. So if somebody is talking to me and unpacking a problem, as the listener, what’s happening in my head are thoughts such as:

“Oh, I have to come up with a solution…I wonder if this is what they could do…that’s what they could do. Now how can I get them to do this, that, and the other.”

That means that a) my attention and energy is going to be going to what’s happening in my mind rather than what’s happening for them, and b) I’m going start to feel impatient and perhaps I’m going to want to push them very quickly onto the solution that I’ve come up with.
I’ve probably really not paid an awful lot of attention to the actual content of what they’re saying, other than to discern some facts so that, that can help me quickly come up with some sort of an optimal and speedy resolution to the situation for them.

So rather than us trying to fix the situation for that person, when we start to see that when somebody has a problem, it’s always intimately bound up with the noise in their own heads, the thinking, the feeling that’s going on for them. Nobody can actually solve the problem for somebody else.
They have to have to come to that place by themselves. And you know, we can persuade and advise and do all that stuff. But really people have to find their own way to, to work through this stuff in their own heads.

As a listener, then our role is to help them start to unpack and get some of what what’s going on inside their heads, get some of that out on the table. Because when they have unpacked that a little and when they’ve kind of verbalized and talked things through a bit, then they’re starting to have more clarity, more ideas. They’re starting to get their own  insights and ideas as to what they can do to fix the situation.
So when we’re listening from that space, listening to help the person to understand the situation for themselves, listening to empower the person to figure this out for themselves, then we’re going to be very different in how we listen to the person.

You know, we talk about active listening skills such as nodding and open body language reflecting back, nodding etc. When we’re listening from a space of trying to support a person think something through for themselves, then we’re going to be doing those things automatically because we will see the value in those.
We will see the value in making space and letting the person talk, helping them hear what they’ve just said, which is what we do when we reflect back what we have heard them say.
“So what you’re saying to me is you’re really annoyed about. Can you tell me more about what it is that really got to you there? Oh, okay. So what I’m hearing you say is that, you felt disrespected in the meeting last week with Jean, or you felt disrespected in the meeting last week with me. What was it about that? What, was happening there for you?
Can you say more about that? Oh, okay. So this is for you, is about not feeling valued or this for you is about your project not being accepted.”

So by listening from that place, we can be much more effective in helping to actually solve the problem for the person. We’re just going to be automatically more empathetic, more connected with the person. There’s a saying ‘people don’t care what you know until they know that you care’. So we’ll actually come across as more caring, more interested in them. And that in itself can give the impetus and the space for them to start to have the insights that help them figure out what they need to do or that help them communicate to you the part you might need to play in helping them sort the situation out.

To summarize then, the next time you’re in a situation where somebody is full of a story full of anxiety, full of fear, full of annoyance or irritation shift out of the ‘how do I fix this’ mode and the sense that ‘they are handing me the problem, I’ve got to sort it out’ and instead consider how you can be a catalyst here. How can you be a catalyst to help them see what they need to see so that they can take the next steps in this situation for them; or to help them communicate what’s going on inside their mind and the thinking and the feelings that are going on that you might need to understand so that you can play the part that you have to in helping sort the situation out.

I hope you found this video useful. I
If there’s someone else you think might find it helpful, please share it with them or share using the facebook or linkedin icons above.
If you’d like to find out more, check out my blog or download my free eBook here
Or if I can help in any way, please drop me an email at

Thanks for watching

Going Around in Circles in a Conversation? Circular arguing and how to Break That Cycle

Circular arguing: Spinning Your WheelsA common question in ‘Difficult Conversations for Managers’ workshops is what to do when it feels like you are in one of those fruitless dialogues, a circular argument, repeating the same thing without achieving anything.
The other person isn’t listening or taking on board what you need them to hear or understand.

A recent example was where a manager was trying to get a team member to implement a change made in a work process. They ended up in a push-pull dynamic where she kept telling him things needed to be done differently and he kept telling her the old way was better.

It’s a common hole to fall into in a ‘difficult conversation’ and at the end of it, both people end up feeling dizzy and frustrated with one another and having made no progress on the actual issue.

The problem is obvious – neither the manager nor the team member are listening to each other.

That’s because each of them mistakenly think that the best way to influence someone’s behaviour is to repeatedly tell them why their own way is the best.

The Problem with Circular Arguing

Last Sunday, the first dry day in a week, we had the bright idea to go for a long, energising walk to a nearby woods. We parked on what looked like a relatively solid piece of ground at the entrance. An hour and a half later refreshed and ruddy-cheeked we jumped into the car, anticipating a warming cup of creamy coffee in the local café to revive us.

I turn on the engine, put my foot on the accelerator but there’s no forward movement. I give a bit more gas and still, we’re not going anywhere. Too late…I now realise that the patch of ground is not asphalt at all but a well-disguised muddy sump. The more I try to move forward, the more the back wheels spin frantically, but in vain, in the sopping wet ground. Instead of moving forward, I am digging a deeper track into the mini swamp I was already half-mired in.

These kind of circular arguments are just like that. Both people are spinning their wheels but yet there is no progress on the issue. In fact, both are just becoming more ‘dug-in’ to their views and the rightness of those. Despite the best of intentions (trying to get out of the rut) each person is just digging themselves and the other person further in.

When you keep arguing back, it looks to the other person like you aren’t listening to them. And when we aren’t being listened to, we either repeat what we have said or find another way of saying the same thing. So they are simply mirroring your behaviour. Both of you are spinning your wheels. But the car is sinking deeper into the mire.

Getting Out of the Circular Arguing Rut

So how do you break that dynamic? How do you get the person to stop arguing for long enough for them to really hear what you are trying to say?

Start by taking your foot of the gas pedal.

Translating that into concrete terms in a conversation or negotiation means harnessing the rather magical power of listening.
Yes, I know, we all think we listen well.
You know their arguments so well you could recite them yourself. So you must have been listening.

But a lot of the time when we are listening, we are not listening to try and understand where the other person is coming from. We are evaluating what they are saying. We are thinking about what we will say next. What might be the best way to refute what they have said?

One of the worlds best-known experts on negotiation and mediation and co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation is William Ury. In his Ted Talk, he tells us the three key advantages real listening has:

  • It helps us understand and really ‘get’ where the other person is coming from.

“Negotiation, after all, is an exercise in influence. You’re trying to change someone else’s mind. How can you possibly change someone else’s mind if you don’t know where their mind is?”

  •  It’s a way of connecting with the other person and building rapport and trust (genuine listening,  not pseudo head-nodding). It shows we have an eye to the other person’s concerns. It shows we care.
  • This is the counter-intuitive piece: Listening well to someone makes it more likely that the other person will listen to us.

“It helps get to “yes.” In short, listening may be the cheapest concession we can make in a negotiation. It costs us nothing, and it brings huge benefits.”

(Quotations from William Ury, The Power of Listening Ted Talk)

What does ‘real listening to’ look like?

 One of the most powerful ways to really listen to someone is the mediators favourite tool: paraphrasing or reflecting back.

Here’s what Dr George Thompson, President and Founder of the Verbal Judo Institute says about paraphrasing:

“When you paraphrase, your job is to get at what they mean, not what they say…what do they really mean. And to do that you wrap it in your words…because you should be calmer and less upset, and you give it back to them, to ensure you have heard and understood it correctly…

[Paraphrasing back to someone what they have just stated] …creates a third person in a two-person conflict: it’s not his words and his meaning, it’s not your words and your meaning, it’s a blend”

(Dr. George J. Thompson, Verbal Judo Institute, Verbal Judo: Diffusing Conflict Through Conversation)

So when you paraphrase back to someone, you’ve moved out of opposition stance and into a mediator-stance. You are no longer trying to convince them of the rightness of your argument and the wrongness of their own.

In concrete terms using the example above, let’s suppose the team member says (again!)

‘I don’t see it helping the client at all…it will mean they have to wait longer…it’s too big a change to introduce now…I can’t see it helping anyone’

Instead of the Manager responding back with a counter-argument, paraphrasing back could sound something like

‘Let me see if I get what it is you are finding difficult about implementing this change…you are concerned about the waiting time for the client and that that might be longer…is that it?’
‘Can you say more about that?’

Here’s how paraphrasing back can really help:

  • Instead of having to reach for another defending statement, the team member will be drawn into listening.
  • They have an opportunity to reflect further on their own views and clarify if what they have just said truly communicates what’s important to them.
  • You will have an opportunity to understand the mental barriers getting in the way of them accepting your viewpoint. So you are now better able to address their concerns and needs.
  • Their viewpoint might add some useful ideas or suggestions that could have an even better outcome for all concerned.
  • Most importantly you have shifted the dynamic from a ‘Me-versus-You’ stance to ‘Me-and-You-versus-The Issue’. Now you are in the role of someone who is trying to facilitate exploration of an issue for which there might be many valid ways forward. Much easier than trying to haul someone by the lapels over the line of an argument.

As Mark Gerzon author of ‘Leading Through Conflict’ reminds us

“The challenge for each of us is to ‘find a place in ourselves from which to listen, a place so grounded that we can listen even if it might change our beliefs’”

(‘Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities’, Mark Gerzon)

Download our free eBook here: POISE NOW 8 steps to Navigating Difficult Conversations 

Do you get caught in the ‘yes…but…’ trap?

Think about the last ‘difficult’ conversation you had to have with someone.

Did you find yourself using some version of the phrase ‘Yes…but…’?

You were trying to get your point across but they didn’t seem to be listening.

Despite all your attempts to clarify where you were coming from in a reasonable and rational way, they just didn’t seem to be hearing it.

And what did that feel like on the inside… a rising sense of impatience… ‘when are they going to get it’. A furrowed brow, a feeling that you weren’t going to be able to persuade them, frustration and irritation replacing any earlier optimism that this could be a constructive conversation.

Words shape our attitudes and our energy – not only when we are on the receiving end of a conversation. As the speaker the words we choose can also influence how we feel. And it can be at a very subtle level. The word ‘but’ with only three little letters might not seem so significant. Yet they have a powerful impact on both speaker and receiver.

‘but’ negates whatever comes before it

The problem with ‘but’ is that it negates everything that comes before it. The dictionary definition states that ‘but’ is a conjunction used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned. The implication of using the word ‘but’ is that it negates everything that comes before it.

For example:
‘I really like the plan you have drafted but I think the timelines won’t work’.
What the person hears is ‘not much of a plan with timelines like that’.
This in turn can spark a defensive response from them. Your ‘but’ has had the effect of failing to show appreciation for their plan and instead just seeing its flaws. Gradually the dynamic between you and them becomes more polarised where each of you is trying to convince the other of the rightness of their position. ‘But’ sets up unnecessary resistance and competition between the speaker and the listener.

Swap ‘but’ for ‘and’

Now imagine just making one simple change. Swap the ‘but’ for ‘and’.

I really like the plan you have drafted and I’d like to review the timelines to be sure we don’t overpromise

Doesn’t that feel more collaborative? Doesn’t it change how you feel towards them?
Using ‘and’ in the place of ‘but’ not only evokes less resistance on their side. It also transforms your energy and connection with them. The dynamic is no longer one of you trying to convince with increasing frustration. Instead you are both on the same joining forces to come up with the best plan possible to address the work task.

(To see the contrast played out in a fun way between ‘yes…but’ and ‘yes…and’ watch this 3 minute YouTube video!)

The ‘Agreement Frame’

You can take this idea of ‘yes… and…’ a little further when you are faced with resistance to an idea from another person. This is known in Neurolinguistic Programming jargon as the ‘Agreement Frame’.

You use another version of the ‘yes…and…’ structure:

I agree ….and… ‘or ‘I appreciate your viewpoint…and…’ and then in the second part of the sentence introduce the idea or concept you are trying to help them consider.

For example, imagine you are trying to convince someone to roll with a new system being introduced. Their reaction might be something along the lines of:

This new system is much more cumbersome to use and I don’t see how it’s going to make anything work any better’.
It’s tempting to respond something like ‘yes but… you could at least try it…’ or ‘I don’t think you understand…’ and then get into arguing back your viewpoint.

Using the ‘agreement frame’ you might say instead
Yes, I can appreciate that it is a big change… and I’d like to support you around the changes that need to be brought about…’ and then follow that up with ‘what are the key concerns that you would like to be supported with

The whole energy and direction of the conversation has been transformed. You are no longer pitted against each other with one trying to force your viewpoint on the other.

Performance Management Conversations

Suppose you raise concerns with an employee not being a ‘team player’ and their response is:

I don’t know where you’re coming from. I think I am a team player – it’s the rest of the team that has the problem

How might you use the agreement frame to respond to them in a way that shifts from a defensive to a co-operative mindset?
You are trying to swap a ‘yes…but…’ to a ‘yes…and…’, where the second part of the sentence is directed towards the desired outcome.

Here are some options:

I agree that ‘team player’ can mean lots of things…and I’d like to explore with you how you see it and how we can get to a place where there is greater co-operation between everyone on the team


I appreciate that you see it differently…and let me explain what I mean and how I can support you and the rest of the team to work more collaboratively

Try this yourself

Over the coming week watch for the number of times you use the ‘yes…but…’ phrase in your communication with others. Then experiment with substituting for one of the ‘yes…and…’ approaches described above and be amazed by how it can transform the dynamic between you and them!

Relationships that Endlessly Frustrate: Can the Dynamic Be Changed?

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” ~ Anaïs Nin Optical Illusion

The above quote neatly captures the psychological phenomenon, that while there is a factual and concrete reality out there, none of us have a truly objective view. There can be many different perceptions of the same situation. As an example, I show this picture to my mediation/conflict management training groups and ask people what they see. (What do you see by the way? An old man – side profile or facing forward… can you see the young woman and her baby?). And most of us get that it’s the same glass with water at the half-way mark that’s varyingly described as half-full or half-empty.

But when it comes to translating that theory into practice, in the negative emotional space of a difficult relationship, it’s much harder to believe that you are just operating from your own bias. You think you are seeing them as they are.

That was a challenge I’ve had for many years in a close personal relationship. I found this person difficult to be around. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t just my perception, this was one of those exceptions…where the person truly is ‘difficult’ to handle.

We don’t experience events… we experience our thinking about events

For years, there has been ample research to demonstrate that what we perceive as reality is mediated through our own filters of thought – attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions. But what many psychologists are starting to realise, is that it’s not just that we have different interpretations of reality but that the reality we experience is 100% created by us – by our own thoughts and feelings occurring in every moment. Rather than us being at the mercy of our circumstances which are causing us to feel or think a certain way, life is an inside-out job.

No matter how scary or oppressive or insecure your experience of life may be, once you realize that it’s only your own thinking that you’re experiencing, that thinking loses much of its hold over you. We don’t experience the world; we experience our thinking about the world.
Michael Neill, The Inside Out Revolution

As the Mediator or Conflict Coach it’s easy to see this in action with clients – how they are experiencing their thinking rather than the concrete events. But when you are caught up yourself in a difficult relationship and the accompanying thoughts and feelings that get generated, it’s much harder to step back and be objective.

But it felt like objective reality…

This has been my experience in a longstanding relationship in my personal/family life which I have always found problematic. While there were arguments and stand-up rows in the past, in more recent years, I had applied all my own good ‘conflict management’ skills to our interactions. For the most part, I could remain constructive, calm, do the listening thing, be tolerant and accepting, manage my boundaries etc. Our relationship had certainly improved (on the outside) but truth be told, underneath my calm exterior, I felt irritated and resentful a lot of the time in their company. Every so often I’d erupt with a passive aggressive comment or side-swipe which didn’t help the situation.

At one level I could understand that it was my perceptions of this person that were somehow skewed. Yet at another level, I really believed that in this particular case, what I was seeing was objective reality. In other words, this person was truly a negative, self-centred, repetitive, judgemental, moody… you-name-it person and my only choice was to live with it and manage it to the best extent possible.

I’ve been dipping into a new approach to understanding the interplay between thoughts, feeling and behaviour. So I was curious to see if this could help me deal differently with this person in my life.

How we create a negative story in our minds and then substitute it for reality

In a coaching session with author and coach Dr Anne Curtis she invited me to slow down and reflect on what was going through my mind when I was in this person’s company. I began to see that even before I would meet them, I would have a whole negative story and history in my mind about what they might say or do. And I would even think through how I might cope with this behaviour when it would come up. When I was in their company then, I wasn’t really connecting with the person, rather I was listening to confirm my negative assumptions in a ‘here we go again’ kind of way.

Slowly it started to dawn on me that rather than this person causing me to feel/think a certain way, I was the creator of that experience. Sure they might be behaving in a way that would reinforce my ‘story’ but the unpleasant feelings were all coming from my own stream of negative thoughts about them.

Not only this, but this whole cacophony of pre-conceptions was getting in the way of any true connection or listening to this other person. I wasn’t really experiencing them; I was just experiencing my thinking about them. And that in turn was leading me to feel tetchy and impatient. Sure I didn’t react or express this but neither was I truly open to seeing beyond my own prejudices about them.

The freedom that comes from realising where feelings come from

These reflections were insightful but would it really change anything? Would I find it easier to spend time with them? Would I be less irritated and on edge?

Since then I’ve met with them several times. And the difference has been quite remarkable. I have completely let go of the negative stream of consciousness thinking and am now inwardly just calm and at ease. I’m able to listen at a much more empathic and genuine level. What I’m also seeing clearly is that the things they say that had previously really irked me are just them caught up in their thinking. And I don’t have to take it so seriously.

Not only is my experience different but there are subtle changes also in them. They are listening to me more, the negative and judgmental conversation has lessened.  I feel compassion and warmth now instead of judgement and resentment. Most importantly, I no longer care whether they change or not.

And… just to be clear about this… it’s not about having positive thoughts, practicing acceptance, forbearance or deep breathing. Neither is this about changing or reframing one’s thinking nor is it about denying the reality of difficult relationships.
Instead, it’s in understanding the source of our discomfort is our own arbitrary and transient thoughts which leaves us free to move beyond them and being more present to the moment and to the person in front of us.

Try it!

Read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’

Trying to resolve conflict? Are you asking the right question?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”ositions and Interests in Difficult Conversations

The rush to solutions

One of the most common challenges participants in mediation training have is temptation to push the parties towards looking at solutions much too early in the process. As the neutral third party with no emotional stake in the issue, the solution seems obvious. But if the solution was that easy to find, then the parties wouldn’t need a mediator in the first place.
Here’s one of my favourite tools that you can use in difficult conversations of all kinds, whether you’re the mediator or trying to deal with a difficult issue yourself.

Take a dispute between Janet and Tina who share an office. Janet feels that Tina cherry-picks the tasks she likes, leaving her to do the boring and tedious filing and statistics. Tina feels Janet never does her share of the lunch time reception cover. Janet likes the place tidy and orderly, Tina sees Janet as a ‘control freak’. Argument and counter-argument get pitted against each other.

Questions that come to mind might be: “Janet, is it fair that Tina should do all the lunch time cover?” “Tina, shouldn’t you divide up the boring tasks fairly between you both?”
Alas, these questions only serve to elicit further defensive responses… each one listing off several reasons why the way they are viewing the situation is the ‘right’ one. Reframing in Mediation

Back to Einstein’s quotation above, what would be a more useful question to ask that might lead towards solving of the problem? The Coleman Raider Reframing Formula is one of my favourite tools for helping people stuck in problem (re)iteration mode.

From Positions to Needs

Parties come to mediation each of them with their position or fixed viewpoint (usually) about what the other one should do to improve the situation. Rather than trying to get them to move from this position, the mediator’s job is to probe for the meaning underpinning their stated arguments.
When Janet says ‘It’s not fair that Tina cherry picks all the nice tasks and I have to do the boring ones’ it’s not immediately obvious what’s really at the heart of this complaint statement from Janet. Is this about fairness of division of labour, a dislike of filing or is it about not being given any choices? Similarly, with Tina’s statement about Janet being a control freak, the mediator has to help Tina understand for herself and express to Janet, what’s at stake for her in this aspect of Janet’s behaviour.
Only when the mediator has elicited each person’s underlying concerns and needs can an effective question about problem-solving be posed, as per the formula below.

So in the case of Janet and Tina, you might identify that for Janet it’s about work being fairly distributed and for Tina it’s about having flexibility in organisation and timings of break. You can then pose the following question:
“How can we find a way for you both to work together, that meets your need Janet for fairness of workload and your need Tina for flexibility in the schedule”

This question has changed the frame of the problem and invites them to consider it from a collaborative and mutually inclusive rather than exclusive point of view.
Yes, it might have taken 55 minutes to get to this point but it’s a much better place to try and resolve the issues between Janet and Tina than trying to reconcile competing and polarised positions.

When a conversation is starting to go off track
You can use this process in all sorts of contexts – one-to-ones, group settings etc. where you feel the conversation is starting to go around in circles. Take a step back and start to ask questions to drill down to what’s really at stake for the other persons. Share also what’s really at stake for you… and then ask
‘How can we find a way to meet your need Joe for X and my need for Y’

Read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’

Emails…Are you Trigger Happy? Read this Before You Press ‘Send’

In the late eighties I taught in Germany on a two-year Business English programme. One of the course handbooks focused solely on writing business letters in English. The students were schooled in great detail on the etiquette and nuances of letters and memos in a variety of business contexts. These ranged from sales to commissioning orders to making and responding to complaints.
Thirty years later in the era of emails and online communication, the art of writing a business letter has probably diminished in importance. But there is a lot to be said for the level of care, professionalism, precision and politeness, that was drilled into those students.

Email has many useful features but these same benefits can also lead to miscommunication and conflict. Many of the workplace issues that I’m involved in either mediating or coaching invariably include some reference to persons writing ‘abusive emails’ or ‘email bullying’.

Why is email such a cause of problems?

The problem with email is that it’s speed and convenience fools us into thinking it’s the same as a face-to-face interaction. But Bacall highlights some key differences:

Talking to someone directly permits what he describes as simultaneous mutual influence. Even though only one might be speaking, they are getting immediate feedback and information from the other person’s non-verbal communication – facial expressions, body language etc. and can amend and adjust their message or how they are conveying it accordingly.

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman points out that our brains are designed for face to face connections. Recent neuroscientific research has focused on the role of brain cells known as mirror neurons which assist us in interpreting other people’s emotions and intentions.

In non-face-to-face interactions such cues are absent and you are left to make assumptions about the other person’s feelings and intentions. It leads to what Goleman describes as an ‘optical illusion in the mind’, where you assume that the person is picking up all the unspoken emotional signals. But of course they are not because they don’t see you.

In fact, when reading an email, the lack of facial and nonverbal cues that might soften or contextualise the tone of a spoken message triggers our inbuilt negativity bias. So what a sender thinks is a ‘positive’ message is actually perceived as ‘neutral’.
Goleman states:

“Receivers think that positive email was more neutral. When the sender thinks it’s neutral, receivers tend to think it’s more negative. In other words, there is a general negativity skew to email”

Communicating by email feels like it’s almost face-to-face because of the speed, informality and ubiquity of this medium. But it’s not and yet we fail to give it the requisite attention that writing a letter demands. This means considering not only the content or message you want to communicate but giving attention also to the tone and impression you want to convey to the reader.
Emails tend to be read and responded to quickly and more reactively. Time pressures mean you fail to edit or reread and instead press ‘send’ so you can get on to the next task.

Easier than face-to-face

Particularly where there is a difficult message to deliver, the remoteness of email feeds into our tendency to avoid a difficult conversation. It feels easier than an eye-to-eye confrontation. But you do this at your peril.
Communications expert Joseph Grenny tells us that face-to-face interaction causes us to behave more empathically and ethically. Out of sight is out of mind. And when writing an email this real time feedback around how our message is being received is missing.

Another unhelpful practice is that of ‘cc-ing’ – including others on a message by copying or blind copying. And, if there is already some tension in the relationship, it’s a surefire way to escalate the situation. Emails are often copied to managers/others to “keep them in the loop” or to ‘put it on record’.  But while it might achieve that aim, the impact of copying in multiple contacts can leave a person feeling publicly criticised or even humiliated.
‘Cc-ing’ in practice means inviting an audience to your disagreement or negative feedback message to this colleague. Instead of dialogue and co-operation, it’s more likely to lead to defensiveness and mistrust.

So how best should we manage email communication?

  1. Where possible, don’t use email to raise ‘difficult’ issues
    Email is an excellent form of communication in many contexts. However, if there is a sensitive or contentious issue to be raised with someone, email is a poor substitute for a face-to-face conversation. Such conversations need to be taken off-line and the requisite time and attention given to preparing and conducting them, to ensure that they don’t escalate the situation.
  1. Focus on tone as well as content:
    Always reread what you have written before sending an email. A good practice is to consider not only the content (have I conveyed my key messages accurately and clearly) but also and most importantly, the tone. For example, you could include some explicit reassurance about your intentions in the content of the email.

‘I was concerned that you missed the deadline last week. I know you’ve been very busy with other projects and am not questioning your commitment’.

End your message with an invitation or offer to talk about the issue, either in person or by phone.   Where your concerns are about performance or motivation, such accountability conversations shouldn’t’ be conducted at all over email.

  1. Recognise if the tone starts to ramp up, and get into dialogue
    If an email exchange starts to turn into a ‘difficult conversation’ then suggest that the matter be taken up in a face to face conversation. You might say ‘I appreciate you see things very differently… let’s see if we could arrange a meeting or conference call (if they work remotely) and try to get this resolved’.
  1. Visualise the person you are writing to
    Compensate for the remoteness and lack of human responsiveness of email by imagining the person sitting across from you reading what you have written. Bear in mind that they won’t have the benefit of seeing you and hearing your tone of voice. Particularly where you might write an email in the heat of the moment, it’s advisable to let it sit and come back and read at a later stage and with a more objective eye. Or ask a trusted colleague to read and give you feedback before sending.
  1. It’s a letter not a conversation
    Remember that email is analogous to letter writing rather than to conversation. Once it’s sent, you can’t amend or undo it. While emails tend to be more informal in tone, you still need to be mindful of common letter writing etiquette such as using the person’s name, appropriate punctuation, spelling etc.
  1. Understand the repercussions of ‘cc’ing
    If the message is a negative one, this could be akin to public shaming. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold someone accountable for their performance. But including other people, even where they might need to know, in an email communicating your dissatisfaction is most likely to escalate the situation and least likely to lead to any kind of productive outcome.

Of course there are times when issues have to be put across in writing and accountability is important as is ensuring there is a record. However, the face- to-face discussion about these matters needs to happen first of all where the heat of the issue can be dealt with.

While email has many time-saving benefits and most of us would be lost without it, it has its limitations. Trying to hold complex discussions or resolve conflict through email is at best a waste of time and at worst, can cause a situation to escalate.
To put a twist on the old saying ‘Email in Haste, Repent at Leisure’  

Read more about navigating difficult conversations with confidence and clarity download our free eBook ‘POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’



Dreading a ‘Difficult Conversation’? Begin with the end in mind.

Purpose in Difficult ConversationYou know that feeling…. You’ve been tolerating and putting up with someone’s behaviour or poor performance at work for a long time. You have to talk to them about it but have been putting it off, hoping that they’d somehow pull their socks up.

The list is long… not getting reports, monthly plans etc. in on time; not co-operating with colleagues; being argumentative and negative at staff meetings; questioning what they are asked to do as not being in their ‘job description’ and generally undermining you in your attempts to manage.

Where will you start… it’s so tempting to sit them down and tell them fair and square, what it is that you’re not happy with.
It feels like it could be such a satisfying thing to do… because you are irritated, annoyed and this person has sucked away so much of your time and energy.

In fact you’ve got so much to say, it’s hard to know where to start…

But take a step back for a moment. Rather than focusing on where to start, begin by looking at where you’d like to finish up.

‘Begin with the end in mind’ Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Where would you like to be at the end of this conversation?

What outcome do you want to have achieved when the two of you have finished talking?

What’s your Purpose in talking through your frustrations and concerns?

1.       What intentions do you have towards them? 

  • Are you looking to ‘fix’ them or ‘make them’ change their behaviour or attitudes?
  • Do you want to ‘hit and run’ – a quick dig to vent frustration or irritation?

Are you trying to win or prove that you are right?

Conversations tend to be more effective when we focus on purposes such as solving problems and making things better for both you and them. Conversations also work better if we have positive intentions towards the other person, if we care about or at least try to respect their goals or needs. 

2.       You can only control what you do and say, not how they respond

You know this already but just to remind you again… The only aspect of a conversation you can control is yourself – what you say or don’t say, how you respond to them.
What the person does or says during or afterwards is not in your gift.

However, you have 100% control over how you choose to influence that person.
What we know with certainty about ‘difficult conversations’ is that how you frame your key messages and respond to them is critical to the outcome.  

So begin by asking yourself how do you want things to be at the end of this conversation: that they are defensive and angry and even more unco-operative? Or they are a little more open to working with you to try and address your concerns.

3.       Get more specific on your ‘outcome’

You’ve identified that you aren’t happy and can rattle off a laundry list of concerns and even have facts and evidence to support them.
But think how that might land on the other person… you are trying to induce co-operation and openness…so overwhelming them with a list of their ills is probably counter-productive.

Start instead by selecting just three key things that you’d like to have agreed some changes around at the end of this meeting. Clarify what the positive changes you’d like to see are and figure out a constructive way of framing these key messages to them.

Want to find our more about managing a difficult conversation?

Download our eBook: POISE NOW: 8 Steps to Navigate Difficult Conversations