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.

[Podcast] The Power of Decoupling Identity, Building An Internal Compass, Waking Up At 3am, Filling The Void, My Daily Practice

Jack Ferguson (entrepreneur, host of The Push business podcast) and I caught up recently.

It became clear very quickly that we were in similar situations. Having both gone through big challenges and change in our businesses, and neither of us really knowing what the next step is, it seemed like a good idea to explore this on Jack’s podcast.

In this episode we speak about:

  • How and why I’m working at decoupling my identity
  • What was waking me up in the middle of the night.
  • What recently happened to Jack that has him in a tailspin.
  • Choosing to hit publish on vulnerable content.
  • Becoming more of who I am.
  • Trying not to mentally fast forward through crappy times.
  • How to do the work of defining values to use them to navigate uncertainty.

It’s cool to be able to share this kind of thing publicly, so thanks to Jack for initiating it. You can find him on LinkedIn.

Trailer

Listen on

Stitcher: https://lnkd.in/gwdiQ_8

Apple Podcasts: https://lnkd.in/g4d4Fww

Spotify: https://lnkd.in/gUVRW2x

Google Podcasts: https://lnkd.in/gVA7Rzy

 

Show Notes

Conversation Time Stamps

3:00 What business are you currently involved in?

5:25 Why have you done decoupling work?

8:45 Why were you getting up at 3am?

19:00 Why cutting away is usually superior to addition.

21:25 What impacts achievement more? Personal attributes or one’s environment?

28:00 Why did you decide to post vulnerable content recently?

34:20 What questions do you ask to understand who you are?

39:00 Strategy vs Execution.

42:20 How long did you feel content after the olympics?

45:20 How did you manage identity changes when moving between careers?

50:00 What are your experiences of going all in?

Reference Links and Resources

Is Perseverance Toxic?

A founder had an extraordinary business. By any external measure they were hugely “successful”.


And yet, they’d hit a low point. They’d driven out for dinner and drinks then woken up at home in the morning. They walked outside and saw their car parked in the drive. They couldn’t remember how it got there. Couldn’t remember driving it home.


They’d been persevering at work, despite not enjoying it, for years. It was costing them enormously – physically, emotionally and in their relationships. They’d had enough. They’d decided it was time to go, they just needed to figure out how.


We had conversations about it. Where had the enjoyment gone? How would they navigate the transition out? What would they do next?


One day, they mentioned generosity a few times.


“What does generosity mean to you?”


They leaned forward.


“That was the time I travelled overseas to help in a charity. 


And, now you mention it, we used to have monthly events in the business where we’d bring in a local charity and raise money. We haven’t done that for years.


If we were to do that again it would be a growth strategy for us.


It would also be a great defensive strategy. The landlord at one of our locations is trying to kick us out. It would be much harder for them to do that if we had the local community onboard.


Actually… Can we go for a walk?”


The energy shifted. For 90 minutes we walked by the river, revisiting very specific behaviours in their past that brought generosity to life. Could generosity be brought back into the business and their day moving forward?


That was the switch. From throwing it all in, to not just sticking with it, but growing the business to increase their impact. Big time.


There was the performance conversation scheduled for that afternoon, leading and managing hundreds of staff, challenging conversations required with business partners, figuring out a new org structure to handle the growth…


The challenge, the effort, the adversity – none of that had changed.


But their relationship to it had.


Quite suddenly, the perseverance was in service of something more.


Generosity
.

Broken Glass

Before we go further, there’s a hypothetical I’d like you to consider.


+++++++


I smash glass on the floor in front of you.


I ask: “Would you be willing to walk over the glass in bare feet?”


No thanks.


So I change just one condition – same smashed glass, same bare feet.


Now I ask you to bring to mind the person most important to you in the world. They are in distress on the other side of the glass and they need your help.


Then I ask: “Would you now be willing to walk over the glass in bare feet?”


Typically there is the opposite response.


++++++++


What does the change in response show?


It shows that humans are terrible at suffering pointless pain. But, when we are clear about the importance of what it is on the other side of the pain, we won’t just endure it, we’ll embrace it.


The pain doesn’t change, but our relationship to it does. We are now willing to accept it in service of doing what matters to us.


The broken glass is a great metaphor for the thoughts, feelings and physiological sensations that show up in tough situations like stay/leave decisions or sitting in the void of transitions, or asking a “dumb question”, or challenging a boss, or holding someone to account, or speaking up, or stepping in…


Very rarely do we lack information about what to do in these situations or even how to approach them.


Nearly always we need to understand the importance of why we would attempt them in the first place.

Themes of Importance

When I reflect on the specifics of the founder conversation, I see a few themes:

  1. They reconnected to a core value: Generosity.

  2. They were immediately able to reflect on their past and point to specific behaviours and events when they felt they were bringing that to life. These were times of high energy and high impact that truly nourished them.

  3. They could see Generosity play out across multiple areas of their life: work, giving, travel, relationships etc.

  4. It was not about changing who they were or adding something new. If anything it was a realisation that one of their core values had been buried. Now that it was uncovered, it was time to bring it back to guide behaviour.

  5. As such, they were immediately able to see how it might be consciously brought back into present and future contexts and exactly what that would look like as behaviours or words in a conversation.

Persevere or Not?

I was asked recently what percentage of people choose to stay and what choose to go in these kinds of situations. I don’t know. And I’m not sure it’s useful to know – everyone’s circumstances are different.


I’ve found the more useful questions to ask myself are:

  1. What is truly important here?

  2. What is the short term pain, long term benefit of this decision?

  3. What is the short term benefit, long term cost of this decision?

As the serenity prayer goes:


Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.


I’ve felt the cost of persevering and have seen it in many others, regardless of how shiny the veneer or how many trophies in the cabinet.


I’ve seen people slowly lose themselves as they hung onto jobs, relationships, businesses, identities that buried their most important qualities and values.


I’ve grown up in a culture that said quitting was for losers.


I’ve grown up in a culture where the stories of perseverance in the face of adversity are celebrated and rightfully so. People are extraordinary.


But how often do we stop to consider the costs of perseverance? On ourselves, on our health, on the people around us, on what is truly important to us?


If perseverance is solely for its own sake or for the sake of ticking the next box, then I say hell yes. It’s toxic.


If perseverance is in service of values, of impact, of contribution, of something more important, then I’m all for it.