Crucial Conversations at Work: Get People to Talk About Uncomfortable Issues

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June 4, 2017 | David Lee | HCI

If you’re like many of us, you’ve experienced the frustration of knowing something is going on with someone you work with, but they won’t initiate a conversation about it.

Maybe you need to find out why someone did, or did not do something, but you’re not sure how to talk about it comfortably and candidly. For example, you felt a colleague was upset because you challenged her idea at a meeting, but you’re unsure the best way to address that notion.

With any sense of tension and discomfort with coworkers, you might wonder if your judgment is accurate, but you’re unsure how to sort out your feelings.

Crucial conversations arise in the workplace, and it’s helpful to know how to bring up sensitive issues in a way that’s psychologically safe for others to speak candidly about awkward issues.

Creating psychological safety is even more important when you’re in a position of power, because people can be reluctant to challenge or criticize their boss… let alone their boss’s boss.

The person with more power must know how to communicate, and let their employees know it’s okay to have the talk, and that the discussion is not forbidden territory.  

The Multiple Choice Opener can help, with which a language pattern identifies two or more possible perspectives that you think the other person might feel uncomfortable bringing up because of a power differential.

The model follows a format in which possible issues are addressed, and then an outside view is invited.

Examples of the Multiple Choice Opener:

  • “Did you feel like I got your point of view or do you feel like I am not quite getting it…or is it something else?”
  • “Employee, I want to check in on your missed deadline. Was the project submitted late because it wasn’t clear what I wanted …or the level of priority needed wasn’t clear…or was it something else?”
  • “Are you upset about our performance review because it’s never pleasant to get a negative review, or is it because you disagree with how I rated you, or was it more about the delivery, or…was it something else?”

The Multiple Choice Opener is effective, and as the initiator of the conversation consider the impact of naming possible points of view, rather than just asking an open-ended question like, “What about the performance review is bothering you?”

When asked an open-ended question, the employee has no idea what is fair game to talk about and what might trigger defensiveness and potential backlash. But when the manager explicitly names possible reasons, it explicitly signals that the issues are up for discussion.

For instance, if the employee is upset because of his/her manager’s approach to giving feedback during the performance review felt heavy-handed and harsh, he/she is unlikely to bring that up. However, if his/her manager names this approach as a possible issue, he/she is more likely to speak truthfully.

Asking the employee if the issue is something else keeps the question open-ended, so the other person knows they don’t have to choose from the list.

When using the Multiple Choice Opener, you specifically put potential issues or perspectives on the table and make it easier for others to acknowledge their discomfort.

Just because you bring up an issue, it doesn’t mean you immediately agree with the other person if they say “Yeah…that’s how I feel.” It simply means that now you can talk about it since it’s out in the open. And because you can talk about it, you can work to resolve it.

This language pattern is valuable because it helps enable someone to talk about what’s bothering them, eases problem resolution, and provides closure.

The Multiple Choice Opener strengthens the relationship because it communicates: “I care enough about you and my effect on you to ask you about this.”

Because you propose more than one potential issue or causative factor, it also shows that you have given the situation some serious thought.

This is an especially powerful message when you are a manager bringing up an issue that your direct report is unlikely to broach. It shows you sincerely care about your impact on them, rather than having the attitude that, “Because I’m the boss, I get to act however I want and you just have to deal with it.”

The respect and thoughtfulness communicated by this language pattern will strengthen your relationship with others, and enable you to work together more effectively, and with less effort and drama.