Managing people in a collaborative, open, transparent yet accountable way

Framing What You Need to Say in a ‘Difficult Conversation’ – Free Template

Download Word Doc version of ‘Framing Your Key Messages
Download a completed template ‘Framing Your Key Messages in Addressing an Issue‘  in relation to addressing lateness. (This is an example of how you might use the template , it is not a prescription or recommendation. Your context, situation and way of expressing yourself might be completely different.)

Video Transcript

Hi Mary Rafferty here

In this video I’d like to share a tool from my ‘Difficult Conversations’ training programmes.

This tool can be used in many contexts to support someone preparing to give a difficult message to another person. It might be a manager having to raise a ‘tricky’ issue with a member of their team. Or perhaps you are facilitating/mediating between 2 people and want to help each person prepare how best they might communicate their concerns to one another.

It can also work as a coaching tool that you might share and go through with a client who is planning how to address an issue with another person.

So the tool is called ‘Framing Your Key Messages’, for those of you who have a copy of my eBook POISE NOW – you can download for free on my website – this tool relates to step 4 = S – Share.
You can see  on the left hand side a set of prompts to help shape what you need to say in a constructive way.

The first box invites you to ‘name the issue’ so in other words, put some wording on what the ‘topic’ as it were is that’s being discussed. However, you see I’ve also put the words ‘open frame’ so it’s about using wording that doesn’t already pre-judge or cause the person to feel they are being attacked.

A typical example of a closed frame would be ‘talk to you about your attitude’ so that phrasing implies a judgement about the other person and that they are in some way a ‘problem’. Whereas an open frame would be where I might say ‘I’d like to talk to you about what happened in two recent Project X meetings…I was concerned that you didn’t seem to be contributing as much as you usually do and wanted to ask you about that and what’s happening for you in relation to the Project’

The second box then invites you to be more specific. So perhaps write out a couple of examples – it’s always good to get these on paper for yourself anyhow. Then in terms of communicating these, a nice frame that comes from the Crucial Confrontations people is the idea of ‘describing the gap’ – so simply stating what your observations were as against your expectations.

Again, you are trying to move away from getting into value-based labels and opinions such as ‘bad attitude’ or ‘very unmotivated’ and find a way to express your concerns in terms of observed ‘facts’ e.g. ‘you didn’t ask any questions and that’s not usual for you in my experience of you at previous meetings’

Clarifying what’s at stake can be helpful – so giving the person insight into your reasoning and your thinking and assumptions in relation to the issue. That can range from the impact on the work, project to the broader impact perhaps at a team level or even a concern you might have in terms of a negative impact for that person themselves.

The fourth box invites you to reflect on some wording that might describe the emotional impact for you – if relevant or appropriate. This is not an encouragement to act out your emotions and tell them how awful they are and how angry you are. Rather it’s about reflecting on whether and how best to communicate the impact of a behaviour or action perhaps that you might have found difficult at that professional -personal level.
For example, ‘when you don’t engage much during the meetings, the impact for me is a sense that you don’t want to be there…and that I’m annoying you or putting upon you in some way…’

Next, acknowledging, if relevant, what your own contribution might be to the issue can also be helpful so you are demonstrating you are willing to take ownership of your part in an issue rather than make the other person be “the problem”. You are also modelling an openness to reflecting on one’s behaviour and naming things one could have in hindsight done differently.

Indicating your positive intentions and wish to resolve the issue – here you are being deliberate in trying to counteract the ‘negativity bias’. This is our human tendency to pay more attention, or give more weight to negative experiences over neutral or positive experiences.

Having now spelt out or expressed your concerns, you want to ensure that you also assure the person of a positive intent in the conversation and name for them your wish to resolve and make things work better for both.

Finally, having said your piece, it’s now time to pose some sort of question that communicates to them that you want to hear their viewpoint and perspective on the situation.

You can see then underneath, some further bullet points suggesting next steps i.e. listening, drawing their viewpoint out further with some questions, using paraphrasing to check then that you’ve understood their viewpoint. The last bullet is then about you checking in with them to see that they’ve understood your viewpoint.

There is a copy of this template available to download above. I’ve also used the template to frame how one might address a simple (not necessarily easy!) issue such as lateness for work. So there will be a copy of that above also. Of course I’ve completed this using my words and my phrases – I’m not suggesting you say things exactly as I would, this is just an example. You have to find words and phrases that ring true and authentic for you.

I’m also putting some links to other blog posts on this theme that you might find helpful.

Let me know how you get on! And please get in touch if I can be of any help whether it’s coaching, training or mediating any aspect of ‘difficult’ conversations that might arise for you – just email me at:

Thanks for watching!

Other related blog posts:

Trying to Get Your Point Across But They Won’t Listen
The Secret Ingredient for Success in Difficult Conversations
Frustrated trying to deal with difficult behaviour? Try these 3 simple shifts



What if someone persists in a behaviour despite your feedback?

You’ve asked them once, you’ve asked them a second time and yet the behaviour still keeps happening. How to address behaviour that persists despite your feedback about it.


Hi Mary Rafferty here

Today I want to talk to you about a question that came up yesterday in a seminar I was delivering to a team of managers on the theme of dealing with conflict on the team. The question was about dealing with repeated instances of behaviour that have occurred, despite getting feedback about this.

The situation relates to a manager who has a person on her team, who has a tendency to get into a rage or an angry outburst. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it tends to have a lot of fall out for other members of the team e.g the person on the receiving end of that particular outburst. People find it very difficult, very undermining, and so she wanted to do address this.
The manager has already talked to this team member in the past when there was an incidence of this reaction and given her feedback about it. They would have a conversation and then things were usually fine again for the next period and then it would happen again.
These outbursts have started to happen more recently in the past 12 months so a new year ahead, she wanted to sit down and have a conversation about putting a plan in place so that this kind of behaviour would no longer be happening.
So here are three things I said that she might think about in planning and having this conversation.

Content, Pattern or Relationship

When you have a situation where there is a behaviour that despite being addressed continues to happen again and again, it’s time to reach for the CPR approach. CPR is an acronym coined by the authors of the **‘Crucial Conversations’ and ‘Crucial Accountability’ series of books and the ‘C’ stands for Content.

So the first time something happens, e.g. in this particular situation, the staff member gets angry or has an outburst, you address the situation, provide feedback that focuses on that interaction or event, what happened, what was said.
If a situation starts to happen again and again, it’s time now to move onto the ‘P’ in CPR which stands for Pattern. Now you are talking to the person about a pattern of behavior that has started to emerge and you are no longer focusing on one instance. You’re now talking about the fact that there are repeated instances of this particular behaviour and the repeated the impact that this is having on whoever’s involved. This is the approach that I suggested the manager take in the conversation she was about to have with the staff member in the case above.
The ‘R’ in CPR stands for ‘Relationship’ and this is where we are no longer looking at the content, we’re no longer even talking about the pattern. You’re now actually seeing that you have a concern about that person’s ability or willingness to commit to that aspect of the work or behaviour. This results in you having to constantly harangue and nag them about it is having an impact on the working relationship and the trust you have in that person.

Don’t get drawn into a ‘he-said-she-said’ argument about the instances in the pattern

The second point I made was that in this conversation it’s quite likely that the staff member might get into defending, disagreeing with what did and didn’t happen, who said what and when etc. It can be easy to get drawn into a kind of ‘he-said-she-said’ argument about individual instances.
My suggestion, if that happens is to say something along the lines of the following:
“Look, I appreciate there have been other factors involved in these situations in the past. I don’t really want to get into that today. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that there has been a pattern of behaviors and that this pattern has become more frequent and look at what can we do in terms of a plan and how can I support you to ensure that these reactions and this way of you responding to these kinds of situation stop happening in the future”

Stay non-judgemental and supportive but set a clear boundary

The third point I made is that your approach and mindset is one of kindness, supportiveness, that is you wanting to help on the one hand, but also setting a clear boundary on the other hand. So you might say something like
“ I appreciate that the customers can be difficult …or the deadlines can be really tight and it’s really stressful for you, that you’re really passionate about things and want them to go right and then you get really frustrated. I get all that. The point I’m trying to make today and what I want to help you to look at is how can we ensure that whatever it is happening for you internally and how you’re feeling and whatever supports you need around that, these behaviors that have such a strong impact on others around you make the whole atmosphere pleasant, that these behaviors are no longer occurring and you’re finding a better way to interact when these kind of situations come up for you.”

It caring, concerned, but also, there’s a firm, red line there that you are setting around behaviours – ‘this can no longer happen’.


In summary then, first of all, when a situation starts to happen again and again talking about the pattern rather than to keep re-addressing each particular situation on its merits. Secondly that you don’t get drawn back into the argument over details of when, what happened, who did what etc. Instead, keep focused on what we’re trying to change, i.e. the pattern, into the future.
Thirdly that the conversation has a caring and kind supportive tone which also sets a really clear boundary around what sort of behaviors are acceptable or what sort of behaviors are going to promote a positive atmosphere in the team and what sort of behaviors are just not helpful at all.

If you have a situation you’d like some help with, please drop me an email, check out our facebook page @consensusmediationcoaching and you can message me from there.

Please like our facebook page. Thanks for watching.

**Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (2006)

Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior (2013)
Authors: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

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

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 

Frustrated trying to deal with difficult behaviour? Try these 3 simple shifts

Addressing Difficult BehaviourFrustrated trying to deal with difficult behaviour?

Imagine you had a magic weather wand. A simple wave and you would have glorious sunshine, a gentle breeze with a cloudless blue sky above.

With your magic wand you would lighten people’s moods, you’d lift people’s energy and motivation. In one swoosh, you could banish the grey clouds and make those heavy bands of rain disappear.

Dealing with someone you’re finding difficult at work can feel like a lot of heavy rain. Every conversation is a strain. Team meetings can be a thunderstorm. And everyone gets wet.

Should you talk to them about the need to change their attitude?

Do you sit down and tell them just how disrespectful and rude they can be?

Or could those conversations just bring further gusts of rain and showers?

It’s easy to get pulled into seeing only rain showers when someone is hard to manage. They are moody, unco-operative, hard to approach, resist any kind of feedback, don’t meet work deadlines, upset people around them, rude, unreliable…the list seems endless.

How might you bring some lightness into the heavy weather of a ‘difficult person’ in your work environment?

Become aware of your negative bias

Once we begin to label someone a ‘difficult person’ we are increasingly attuned to seeing only the negative about that person. According to Psychologist Rick Hanson from UC Berkeley evolutionary survival instincts cause negative activity in the environment to be perceived more easily and quickly than positive events. Our brains are drawn more easily and quickly to bad news.

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones”

 Rick Hanson PhD

Soon you see only rain and dark clouds any time this person crosses your horizon. And not just when you see them, even thinking about them can send you into a bad mood. Their positive traits have become obscured by the murky skies of irritation or frustration with how they behave.

A conversation with them to talk about changing these behaviours runs the risk of using negative rather than positive language: ‘I don’t like your attitude’ or ‘You’re not a team player’

Research has also shown that use negative of words releases a cocktail of anxiety and irritation-inducing chemicals in the brain– for both the speaker and the listener. The follow-on effect is to undermine the level of trust and co-operation between you and them.

Three simple shifts

Here are three simple shifts that can act as a magic wand to bring some more lightness into how you raise issues and approach them so you have a more positive and productive impact.

  1. Start with just one or two key issues

    It’s easy to get bogged down in the long list of behaviours that you would like them to change.
    But where should you start?Ask yourself what behaviours are having the most impact on you or the team. Pick two or three and focus on those. For example, is it how they interact and communicate or does it make more sense to focus on a task area e.g. following through on time on some work responsibility.
  1. Flip from negative to positive

    You’re very clear on what’s wrong, what the problem is, what they don’t do. Disrespectful, unreliable, poor attitude… the list goes on. But communicating along these lines will only provoke denial and defensiveness rather than planting any seeds for change.

Ask yourself instead what behaviours would you like to see.

You might feel like saying

“You don’t get on well with other people on the team”

What does ‘don’t get on well with mean’?

How would you like team relationships to be? What would you like to see happening?

Flipping from negative to positive you could say instead

“I’d like to see you working more closely with others on the team”

  1. State specifically what you need them to do differently

When we’re in a negative frame of mind about someone, it’s easy to get into using vague and unclear labels about them. Phrases like ‘negative behaviour’ or ‘bad attitude’ or ‘unreliable’ roll off our tongues.

But think about it… none of these phrases give any clue to a person what specifically they are doing wrong and how they can correct it.

And how can someone be expected to change if they don’t really understand in a concrete and objective way what it is they need to do differently?

So instead of

“You don’t get on well with other people on the team”
you could try

“I’d like to see you working more closely with others on the team. There needs to be more frequent communication about the projects and updating each other – perhaps weekly. I’d like to see you working more collaboratively – that means sharing more information and talking issues through with the group before making final decisions on them”


Of course your intentions, your tone and body language need to be in sync with a mindset that’s focused on positive and supportive development and change.

Not a laundry list of all their wrongs and faults.

If you’d like to find out more about how to raise difficult behaviour issues with clarity, confidence and ease, download my free eBook ‘POISE NOW 8 Steps to Navigate Winning Conversations for Leaders and Managers’





The Secret Ingredient for Success in Difficult Conversations

The Secret Ingredient for Success in Difficult Conversations

Does the thought of difficult conversations make your stomach churn? Here’s the most important ingredient to make it work.

In a recent holiday in Italy I went on a ‘Try a Dive’ lesson. The dive centre was at a sandy beach next to a clear blue lagoon.

The water looked so inviting and delicious. But I was nervous.
Would I get the ‘bends’?
Would I be able to breathe? What about being completely submerged in dark water.

I needn’t have worried. The instructors took it step-by- step.
I learned how to breathe with a regulator. I learned the ‘Not Ok’ hand signal. By the time I got in the water, all the nerves had gone.

Because I felt safe. But it wasn’t only because the instructors had explained to me how to do everything. It was the calm, reassuring way in which they slowly but surely took me from dry land to deep water. They sensed my anxiety. They knew I was out of my comfort zone. So they really worked on showing concern and making me feel at ease.

Raising a ‘difficult’ issue with someone is like this. You are taking them on a deep dive.

Imagine there’s a problem with John, a member of your team. He’s missing deadlines, he’s not committed. You have to have a conversation with him.

You do your homework. You gather the evidence – what, when, where, he’s not followed through on things.

You stockpile responses to his excuses.

But what do you do to make him feel safe? How do you help him before, during and after the ‘dive’ to understand that he is not going to drown in the murky waters of this conversation?

Difficult conversations flounder not because of our message but because what the other person believes about our intent

Think about the last training or course you took. You probably got some negative feedback from the trainer as you were trying out your new skill.

Did you get defensive?
Did you take it personally?

Probably not. In fact, you welcomed it. You trusted the trainer had your best interests at heart. They weren’t out to get you. They wanted to help, they cared about your learning and your progress.

You knew that instinctively because of the relationship and context.

When you are trying to raise a difficult issue with someone you need to be more explicit about making them feel safe.

“At the foundation of every successful accountability conversation lies safety. When others feel unsafe you can’t talk about anything. But if you can create safety, you can talk with almost anyone about almost anything – even about failed promises”

 Patterson et. al., ‘Crucial Accountability’ 

What might be the safety concerns people have in these kinds of conversations? 

  1. They doubt your intentions towards them:
    When others don’t like what they hear, the fundamental attribution error means they draw negative conclusions about your intent. They assume the worst.
    They feel undermined. Therefore, you meant to undermine them.
  • What you can do:
    Be explicit – let them know that you understand they might feel you are trying to upset them. My teenage daughters regularly give me frank and honest feedback about everything from my clothes to my parenting. Their comments usually start ‘No offense Mum but….’.

Patterson et al call this Contrasting. It’s a simple three-step process:

  • You imagine beforehand what’s the worst they might think
  • You flag this early on and explain it’s not what you intend
  • You then explain what you do intend.

So for John above it might be: ‘John, I realise that you have been under a lot of other pressures in your work/life. I’m not trying to undermine or annoy you. It’s just I’m concerned about the deadlines and how I can support you in meeting them…’

  1. They believe that you don’t respect them as a person:
    When people know that you care and respect them as a person then it’s amazing what you can get away with. For example, at heart, I know my daughters respect me. So aside from finding their comments sometimes helpful, but often mildly irritating, they don’t impact hugely.
  • What you can do:

Respect is communicated more in what we don’t say than in what we do. Our body language, tone of voice, eye contact belie us.
Make sure you have these kinds of discussions in private.
If you are finding it hard to respect them because of what they’ve done, then work on yourself and your judgement before you sit down with them.

  1. They feel you don’t care about what’s important to them, what we value or need:
    You typically get so preoccupied with getting your side of the message across that you forget to ask about their side. Your focus is on making convincing-sounding arguments rather than really listening.
  • What you can do:
    Give as much time to drawing out and listening to their side as stating your viewpoint. Paraphrase back to show that you have understood. Ask probing (but non-interrogatory) questions to help draw out what might worry or concern them.
  1. They believe you are trying to achieve an outcome that will negatively impact on them:
    Unless you work hard to avoid it, a common mistake is that they see the situation as a zero sum game. Either you have to win or they do. The effect is heightened if they feel in some way you have more power than them – as a Manager or if you represent a majority view.
  • What you can do:
    Don’t go in with a preconceived solution that you are trying to convince them to buy into. Instead, see the conversation as a joint search for workable options that meet each person’s key needs and concerns.

When trying to resolve an issue or deal with a problem behaviour it’s natural to focus on the ‘what’ of the conversation: what they have done that’s not working, what they need to do differently.

Paradoxically it is often not the message itself – the ‘what’ – but the ‘how’ of delivery that leads to ill feeling.

So yes, get clear on the issues and changes required.

But work also on creating a respectful, reassuring atmosphere.

That’s the cornerstone for success in ‘difficult conversations’.

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

or REGISTER NOW for our one-day Workshop and Coaching Programme September 28th, 2016 


Are you in ‘Parent’, ‘Child’ or ‘Adult’ Mode (or all 3!) at Work?

Transactional Analysis“But what if you needed to give her a telling off…”

This was the comment of a participant in a recent ‘Difficult Conversations’ training session with a group of managers. The discussion was around the room layout and whether the manager should sit behind a desk or not, when giving negative feedback to an employee. His frame on the “telling off” prompted me to look at the interaction through the lens of Transactional Analysis

It’s tempting to believe that how well (or badly) people respond to negative feedback to simply be a product of their own personality quirks. Transactional Analysis however tells us that the outcome of these interactions is predicated not only on the attitude of the receiver of the feedback, but also on the mindset or attitude from which it comes.

Developed by Canadian born Psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950’s the theory is that all human beings possess multi-faceted personalities and that these different aspects of their personalities are susceptible to change whenever we relate to one another. Berne identified three observable and distinct core ego states, which he defined as Parent, Adult, and Child.

Three Distinct Ego States

The Parent state has its origins in the behaviours, thoughts and feelings assimilated (and emulated) from parents or other parental figures and is formed by the influences that affect us as we develop through our early childhood. The Parent state can be that of the Nurturing Parent whose qualities are positive and affirming or Critical Parent, representing the authoritative, disciplinarian and prohibitive aspects of parenting and society.

The Child state is the ego state in which we behave, react and perceive in a similar manner to how we did as a child. Child state interactions can include anger, tears and tantrums, in a reprise of the feelings and emotions from our childhood. As with the Parent state, there are two possible aspects to the Child state. They can either rebel against any kind of authority (Rebellious Child) or they can conform, adapting themselves to the wishes of those around them (Adaptive Child). In the Child state, our responses are primarily driven by the emotions we are feeling. On the plus side, the Child state also reflects a more light-hearted, free-spirited and spontaneous aspect of our behaviour.

These two, often conflicting ego states are kept in check by the Adult state, through which we are enabled to draw on our comprehension and analysis of our environment – both internal and external. The Adult state has the capability of calling upon the resources of the other two states and achieving a balance between the two. The Adult state is open to here and now and is characterised by respect for the other person as an equal and an awareness of all life experience, as opposed to just the parent or child experience. All of us have the potential to behave from Parent Child or Adult ego state and even in one interaction, we might alternate between these states.

Workplace Interactions and Transactions

Back to the example above where the manager has to give negative feedback, his use of the ‘tell off’ frame has overtones of Critical Parent. This in turn can evoke either form of the Child response – the Adaptive Child being submissive and apologetic accompanied by feelings of shame and low self-esteem; the Rebellious Child being resentful and defensive.
Playing things out a little further the Adaptive Child response might then prompt the Manager’s Nurturing Parent ‘Ah you’re not so bad after all, come now, dry your tears’ or even more of the Critical Parent ‘If you don’t … then I will have to…’. In the former, the Critical Parent-Adaptive Child interaction might seem to be effective but in the long run, does not allow the employee to develop their own Adult ego state. In the latter, conflict will ensue, the Rebellious Child pushing back and each becoming more polarised in the relationship.

Alternatively, the manager can approach the situation with an Adult ego state although this is certainly no guarantee the interaction will be plain sailing. Just yesterday a Manager I was coaching was reviewing how a ‘difficult conversation’ she had prepared for with an employee on her team. She planned and succeeded in framing her interactions from an Adult state of mind e.g. being calm, factual, objective, non-blaming or judgmental albeit giving a key message about expectations around objectives not having being met.
Despite this the employee had a Rebellious Child reaction, saying it was unfair, raising her voice, counter-arguing and saying she would go and report the situation to HR (whom perhaps she perceived as a Nurturing Parent?). The Manager herself felt positive about the fact that she had not reacted by either backing down or rebelling herself ‘well I am the Manager’.

Of course the employee also has the prerogative around which ego state they can respond from. The Adult state response to the Critical Parent would be to listen, invite details and clarification and if necessary apologise and amend their actions. An Adult response to feedback neither resists and defends nor does it self-flagellate and become overly dependent on the approval of others.


A harmonious, professional working environment is only achievable, in the context of the theory of transactional analysis, by all members of the workforce seeking to ensure that their behaviour is either predominantly “Adult” or reflects the more positive aspects of their “Parent” or “Child” state.

Failing to ensure that the more positive ego states predominate risks creating (and maintaining) a workplace where (unresolved) conflict, hostility and misunderstanding are in constant evidence, with the inevitable impact on morale, efficiency and productivity.

Thanks to my colleague Treasa Kenny who introduced me to Transactional Analysis when we collaborated in a recent team facilitation

Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
Check out some more resources here or download the Complimentary Guide in the sidebar.

All Conflict Leads Us Back To Ourselves

Conflict leads us to ourselvesAll Conflict Leads Us Back To Ourselves. Many years ago I worked quite closely with another colleague. Overall, we had a pretty good working relationship, but some disagreements also as to how things should be done and what the best course of action was to take.

I remember clearly at times finding those disagreements quite difficult: my colleague didn’t really like to talk things through in a lot of detail, her style was more along the lines of stating her view and then sticking to it. My perception was that nothing I said seemed to be heard or taken on board.

Frustrated one evening, I called my sister to let off steam. She listened patiently for a while as I harped on about the situation and how irritated I was about her lack of openness to my viewpoint, how I saw things… ’You know’, I said indignantly, ‘what really bugs me is that she always thinks she’s right’. There was silence for a moment and then she spoke.

‘You know Mary, I think it’s you who always thinks she’s right…’
Her unexpected words sank in. Bang…my bubble of anger was burst. She had nailed it and helped me to realise that at some level I had started to doubt my own viewpoint. My colleague had tapped into my own lack of confidence in my position. My frustration and vehement arguments were more about convincing myself than her.

In difficult conversations and conflict, we have a tendency to project our negative feelings of anger and irritation onto the other person:‘I’m angry because they are so narrow-minded and won’t see it my way’. Yet if we think it through enough, we will find that all roads lead back to ourselves. The first person you need to engage when you’re feeling triggered or annoyed with someone, is yourself.

Get clarity on the part you are bringing to this emotional response because that will better help you manage it. And taking responsibility for our own reactions is an essential first step in moving out of confrontation and into problem-resolving.


Bringing Out the Best in People: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective (Part 1)

In a research experiment in 2001, two groups of people completed a paper maze that featured a mouse in the middle trying to reach a picture on the outside. One group had a picture of cheese on the outside, the other a predator – an owl. After completing the maze both groups were given creativity tests. Which group do you think performed best, in other words were able to demonstrate the greatest level of creativity?

The group which worked with the mouse heading towards the cheese solved significantly more creative problems than those heading to the owl.

So what’s the big deal? This study by Friedman and Foerster, (2001) replicates to an extent what happens in the workplace so the question is, are your employees perceiving an owl or a piece of cheese as they metaphorically help their mouse through his maze?

The Approach-Avoid Response

It demonstrates one of the key mechanisms in the brain by which we process information in our world: the approach-avoid response. This response tells us that for every stimulus we encounter, our brain either perceives it as being ‘good’ and want to engage with it or ‘bad’ and want to avoid it. So all stimuli associated with positive emotions or rewards will likely lead to an ‘approach’ response, whereas those associated with negative emotions or pain will prompt an ‘avoid’ response. The purpose of this is to ensure that the brain learns efficiently what it needs to ensure survival. The limbic system in the centre of our brain has a key function in central role in detecting, processing and storing in memory whether something should be approached or avoided.

The Impact of Social Threat

We have long been aware of our primal instinct to survive, that we are motivated to run from tigers – avoid potential threats- and be attracted towards potential pleasures or rewards such as food and shelter. However, recent neuroscientific research is pointing to a similar mechanism in operation in our brains in response to social cues or how other people engage and interact with us. So in our workplace, even though there are no tigers to run from and we have basic needs such as shelter and hopefully some food, our brains are trying to survive socially. We are constantly assessing the way others interact with us for its threat or reward potential.

Not only this, but a wide body of research also demonstrates we are pre-disposed to detect threats more easily than rewards. Unfortunately, the avoid response generates far more arousal of the limbic system more quickly and with longer lasting effects than the approach response.

The impact on the brain of a social threat is significant. For example, the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain connected to higher order and rational thinking (prefrontal cortex) undergoes a decrease in the amount of oxygen and glucose available. This inhibits vital brain function such as conscious processing, decision-making, planning and working memory. Our ability to think in a complex, insightful way is diminished and replaced by generalised and pessimistic thinking. Furthermore, we experience social pain such as rejection in the same part of the brain as physical pain.

Clearly, when the brain perceives a social threat, it’s counterproductive to the positive state of mind that fosters engaged and motivated thinking. On the other hand, an approach response fosters positive emotions such as joy, happiness and desire. Dopamine levels are increased which enhance learning. An approach state of mind signals engagement and research demonstrates that this positive mindset will improve problem-solving, collaboration and generally enhance performance overall.

Brain-based Leadership

In the working environment, there are significant implications of this for leaders and managers who have the potential to evoke either approach or avoid responses in their staff. Emerging neuroscience research strongly supports the importance of proficiency in people- management skills such as self-awareness and an ability to tune into and promote a positive emotional and mental state in others.

Co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute David Rock points out that the brain perceives the workplace first and foremost as a social system. He posits that leaders who understand this dynamic will be more effective in creating an environment that brings out the best in their staff because they have the ability to “intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance”.



Friedman, R. S., & Förster, J. (2001) The Effects Of Promotion and Prevention Cues On Creativity: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (6), 1001–1013

Rock, D. (2008), Scarf: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others: NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44–52

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.


Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.
Download our Complimentary Guide ‘POISE NOW – 8 Steps to Winning Conversations’ from the sidebar