In his classic business book, “Up The Organization,” Avis CEO Robert Townsend described how he toured all the Avis offices where he asked employees what they thought he should do to turn around the company, which at the time was struggling. He noticed that no matter what the quality of their suggestions was, they were most appreciative when he made the effort to truly listen and acknowledge their points of view, even if he disagreed. He concluded that you don’t have to agree with someone to gain their respect, you simply need to “take them seriously, and show it.” According to Townsend, once they know that you have “taken them seriously,” you can “tell them to go to hell and it will be all right.”
This axiom has application for conducting difficult conversations of any sort, whether it’s discussing a performance issue with an employee, having a difference of opinion with a colleague, or arguing with your spouse about why the checking account is overdrawn. All human beings have a powerful need to save face and appear OK to others. If you don’t believe that, think about the last time you looked at a group photo in which you were pictured. To whose face did your eyes go first?
When you show that you’ve taken the other person seriously in a disagreement or heated discussion, you make an implicit statement that the other person is OK.
So how do you do it?
First: Never tell the other person he’s “wrong” or that you “disagree” with him. Those words instantly say that you aren’t taking him seriously and that he must be crazy for thinking as he does.
Second: Carefully listen to his point of view and then summarize it back to him so he knows you were listening. This simple act shows that you take him seriously. For example, “So you are saying that the reason your budget is over spent this month is because there were unexpected costs associated with the purchase of new equipment – and you had no choice but to spend the money?”
Third: Acknowledge how he felt or feels about the situation. Doing this communicates that you are able to feel his pain and are willing to put yourself in his shoes – a further sign that you take him seriously. For example, “It must have seemed that it was critical to make the investment at the time.”
NOTE: Tone of voice is everything here. If you say the words, but your tone of voice says, “Sure Buster, you’re such an idiot.” You’re probably not going to get the kind of reception to your suggestions that you’d like.
Fourth: Offer your point of view, taking responsibility for it by using “I” language. For example: “Here’s the way I see it Jim. I’m concerned that if we continue to run over budget, the costs of this project will get out of control, which can have dire consequences down the road.”
Fifth: Ask for help to solve the problem, focusing on the future, rather than the past. For example, “Jim, can you think of a procedure we could put in place so that when these issues come up in the future, they can get resolved with going outside budget guidelines.”
Difficult conversations can be daunting. Most of us want to be perceived by others as nice people, so we often avoid them or wait until we are so angry about the issue at hand that we allow the conversation to turn nasty. Taking the other person “seriously,” as Townsend suggests, raises the odds you’ll get a positive outcome, and it makes it easier to conduct the difficult conversation because the chance there will be hard feelings afterward declines.