J I McFadyen Engineering

Supporting Collaboration

Difficult conversations as feedback

We all have to have them from time to time. Conversations that we know aren’t going to be pleasant. Whether it be with the developer who is always running late, the business person who doesn’t show for his own meetings, or that one in the corner who just, well… smells.

Rome visit, June 2008 - 57

As a coach, this sort of thing is one I’m regularly brought. People often ask if I’ll talk to the offending party, or parties. Here and now I’ll save anyone else asking me that. No, I won’t.

What I will do is help you talk to them.

Conversations aren’t hard

I’ll accept scary, worrying and a whole other list of things. But not hard. The act of talking to another human being is not hard. We all do it. Lots.

I think it’s safe to say that at most workplaces the risk of physical violence is pretty small. What can happen if you confront, in a polite way, someone about an issue? They may disagree, but they’re not likely to throw you out the window. As long as you’re respectful of them then there isn’t a lot that can come back on you.

Facts and feelings

When posed with this situation I often fall back on Nonviolent Communication as a tool to help, approaching the conversation as an opportunity for me to give feedback.

There are four components to this approach:

  1. Observation – offer facts, based in a specific time and context. For example, “You were late to the meeting today”. If they can challenge this then you may well be colouring the data with a personal bias – take a note for next time.
  2. Feelings – this is important as it moves it from something the other person did to something impacting you. Be careful that what you say isn’t a well-hidden evaluation of them.
  3. Needs – link the feedback to a fundamental human need, this makes it harder to ignore. We all want to help people meet at least the basic needs of life. Don’t we?
  4. Request – as opposed to a demand, “no” is an okay answer. However, if they do say no don’t give up, you need a resolution. It may not necessarily be the one you wanted, but something is better than nothing.

Nine times in ten you won’t get past the first step before your colleague stops you, apologizes and offers a solution. However, be ready as that tenth time will catch you unawares.

Do you need to avoid that difficult conversation?

Photo by Ed Yourdon

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Category: agile
  • (@alicenwondrlnd) (@alicenwondrlnd) says:

    Difficult conversations as feedback ~ @johnmcfadyen http://t.co/9siqVMTB

    February 29, 2012 at 19:39
  • Bob Marshall says:

    This is a great post, but omits one key element: What if the (other) person in question is a sociopath or psychopath? Not that we’d know, definitively. But the possibility always exists. In these cases, I believe avoidance is advised (by people with far more knowledge of the subject than I – although I can vouch through personal experience, also).

    - Bob

    March 1, 2012 at 11:14
    • John McFadyen says:

      Hi Bob, thanks for taking the time.

      While psych/sociopathy wasn’t a deliberate exclusion on my part I try to not advise people on the subject. I just don’t feel qualified, even having had two run-ins with people who I suspect of being such.


      March 1, 2012 at 16:26
  • Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei) says:

    Just commented on: Difficult conversations as feedback: http://t.co/LcHNec5w

    March 1, 2012 at 11:14