In this series I’m exploring the Six Shifts in mindset and behavior that leaders can make in order to be more successful in having high-stakes conversations — conversations about topics that matter to you and that may elicit conflict or strong emotions in others. Shift 1 was about going into high-stakes conversations with a clear purpose. Shift 2 is about being clear, direct and truthful.

Going into a difficult conversation we often think, “I don’t want to upset this person. I need to give some difficult feedback without them feeling like they are being criticized. How can I soften the blow?” Here’s the hard truth —if you are asking yourself, “How can I get this person to think, feel, or do something differently without them knowing it”– that’s the definition manipulation. Manipulation allows you to stay in your comfort zone rather than support the other person’s growth or solve a problem. Here are some manipulative tactics you might recognize:

Hinting. A subtle or indirect suggestion that sounds like, “Some people have been a little frustrated by the errors on the monthly sales reports.”

Leading questions. Stating a problem with a question mark at the end of it. “How do you think we might improve the accuracy on those monthly sales reports you prepare?”

Minimizing. While raising the topic you simultaneously diminish the importance of it. This sounds like, “Hey, it’s not really a big deal but I’ve been noticing three reoccurring mistakes on the monthly sales report.”

Distancing. Not owning the concern, challenge or criticism you want to share. “Some people think the sales reports aren’t helpful because they’re never accurate.”

The classic yet consistently ineffective “poop sandwich.” Despite what you heard in that expensive supervision seminar, it’s really NOT a best practice. A poop sandwich sounds like, “First, you did a really nice job organizing the team retreat. Also, I’ve been seeing the same errors on the monthly financial report for the past three months. I keep mentioning it to you and it’s not getting fixed. Oh yeah, and I appreciate you getting back to Marketing so quickly yesterday”.

Recognize these default patterns in yourself. Name them. Stop. Take a breath. Then use this checklist to craft a more candid way to convey your message.

Honest: I speak truthfully and accurately (e.g. without exaggeration) about my experience, ideas, needs, and emotions.
Direct: I am direct with that person (e.g., I don’t hint, joke, or complain to others).
Clear: I express my expectations, requests, and promises in ways that are clear and invite questions.
Complete: I share all of the relevant information pertaining to the problem I’m trying to solve.
Courageous: I understand my purpose and what is at stake so I am willing to say things to others that might feel uncomfortable or challenging (for me and for them).

What would it mean for you to bring greater candor and directness to your high-stakes conversations?

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