How To Script Difficult Conversations – Getting Hyper-Tactical With Values.

I’m insanely busy. And I still have to do my work over and above our time together. So that means you need to give me something pretty special Toby.”

I was 5 minutes into a workshop. I’d asked: “What do you want to take away from our time together?”

This immediate challenge rattled me. But I had to respond.


“Thanks for being real with me. I’ll definitely use that to sharpen up how we work through this together.”


It was the best I could do at the time. I pushed my way through the slide deck.


I was pretty relieved to get out of there. And as I did, I could feel my frustration rising.


What the hell? Why wouldn’t they come more open minded about this? What kind of attitude is that?


It chewed me up over the weekend. I couldn’t let it go.


It took a few days to get distance, to regather my perspective.


The frustration remained, but I couldn’t fault their logic. They were right. Time is precious. It is non-renewable. Theirs and mine.


Now I really felt the pressure to deliver. How could I have any kind of impact at all? Let alone ever be invited back to do any further work?


The next workshop opening felt like a crux moment.


This was a group that I might have historically put on a pedestal. I knew this was going to be a difficult conversation for me.

What I said

5 days later, I opened the second workshop with mindfulness and then individual reflections around the group. I listened to them all.


“I have a few of my own reflections.”


I jumped in.


“I know that you all have an enormous amount on your plate. We spoke about a lot of externalities last week – covid, floods, conflicting priorities, conflicting stakeholders.


I’m really grateful that you were willing to be so real with me. That’s super important and I’d like you to continue to be.


I also realise that I can’t really help you with those things. I’ve never been in your roles. But I can empathise with how that might feel – I’ve had to work with pressure too.


The one thing I can definitely do though, is help you explore a different way of working with stress. I’ve used it for myself and I’ve helped others use it to navigate and deliver in high stakes situations.


It’s also really important to me that I make a contribution here. I’ve added up the time and it’s 76 daylight, non-renewable hours that we are all committing to our work together. Including me. That’s a lot. So I’d like your help.


What is it that you truly need to take away from this program?


What are the specifics so I can tailor the work accordingly and maximise the impact?”


The intensity in the room had dialled up. I could feel the tension.


The challenger spoke up.


“I need these two things and as quickly as possible…”


We agreed amongst the group that these would be the focus. The pace quickened, the tension lifted and we were away.


The only thing missing was the slide deck. It never came back out.

Why I said it

As the stoics say, the obstacle is the way (great book titled the same by Ryan Holiday on this).


The challenge on this occasion was a gift that allowed me to get to what truly mattered to this group.


Once what matters becomes clear, I’ve seen huge shifts in energy and focus in myself and in others. It certainly worked this time.

Here’s how I arrived at the specific script above.

Planning

Having five days between the workshops gave me a chance to respond rather than react. Another stoic lesson from Seneca: The greatest remedy for anger is delay.


I’ve been given advice recently from James Charlesworth, founder and CEO of MakerOps: Know your opening line. And know your agenda. By thinking at this tactical level, it forced me to get concise with my approach.

Writing I didn’t just think it through, I wrote it down. Writing forces clarity for me. The night after the workshop, I reflected and wrote down everything – good, bad, ugly. The day prior, I wrote my script and practiced it.


Values

I find my values most useful when I get hyper-tactical with them. The more specific the better, especially when a situation gets tough. I use them to plan my exact opening lines for challenging meetings, for key note presentations, for difficult conversations. In this instance it was the opening lines of the second workshop.


My values are: Love, Gratitude, Humility, Exploration and Contribution.


I used each of them to script a part of my reflection back to the group. Using them acted as the cues to prompt me as I spoke and as key words throughout. Here’s a deconstruction of the script by my values.

Love

[For me, Love in a work setting means recognising and acknowledging the suffering of others.] I know that you all have an enormous amount on your plate. We spoke about a lot of externalities last week – covid, floods, conflicting priorities, conflicting stakeholders.

Gratitude

I’m also really grateful that you were willing to be so real with me. That’s super important and I’d like you to continue to be.

Humility

I also realise that I can’t really help you with those things. I’ve never been in your roles. But I can empathise with how that might feel – I’ve had to work with pressure too.


Exploration

The one thing I can definitely do though, is help you explore a different way of working with stress. I’ve used it for myself and I’ve helped others use it to navigate and deliver in high stakes situations.


Contribution

It’s also really important to me that I make a contribution here. I’ve added up the time and it’s 76 daylight, non-renewable hours that we are all committing to our work together. Including me. That’s a lot. So I’d like your help.


What is it that you truly need to take away from this program?


What are the specifics so I can tailor the work accordingly and maximise the impact?”

 

Acceptance

I also knew I’d be nervous before this conversation. I had to practice acceptance and expect the nerves, the sweaty palms to show up. They did. I had to accept that all of this was the price of entry to this conversation and me making a contribution with this group.

Mindfulness

I open nearly every workshop with a very simple mindfulness activity. It’s a 4-7-8 breath: breath in for a 4 count, hold for a 7 count and out for an 8 count. Do that three times and come back to the room in your own time. (You could try it now if you like. It only takes a minute.) This was an easy one to include in the flow of this situation.


I’ve come to learn that I don’t need to lose my eyes and breathe though. Some people wriggle their toes in meetings and notice the sensations. Others mindfully take a sip of water. Another time, when my father was dying, a Zen Master Mary Jaksch told me that I would know I was present in conversations with him if I could tune into the sounds around me.


I see mindfulness as the scalpel between my reaction (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can choose).


In the end, this script and process worked for me. I recovered the situation and found consensus on the exact items that would make this time most valuable. I feel immensely grateful to the challenger. As uncomfortable as it was, we were all substantially better off.

 

Practice

I was taught early the value of difficult conversations. Growing up, my mum insisted on us having them. Often prefaced with “This might be an uncomfortable one, but I have to ask you…”, she continues to be one of the people who challenges me most directly.

The nuance I’ve added from this situation is that I now have a repeatable process to practice. By getting extremely specific with the application of my values, I know more precisely how I can step into difficult conversations. And with practice, hopefully it won’t take me 5 days to respond.

I’ll still inevitably “fail” in these conversations at times. For sure. But I also feel now that I’ll walk away from them at the very least having tried to be the person I want to be in the process.

And that matters to me.

5 thoughts on “How To Script Difficult Conversations – Getting Hyper-Tactical With Values.”

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