A few months ago, I boarded a flight, tired and eager to relax for a few hours. Then, when I got to my seat and looked at my ticket, I realized I had been accidentally moved from the exit row I reserved into a middle seat a few rows down. Keep in mind that I’m 6’6″ with a bad back and knees. I had already paid extra to be in the exit row, and I still had a connection to make before I was home in California. On top of all this, the lack of sleep didn’t help. I was infuriated.
How does a situation like this typically go? You yell at someone, they pass you along to someone else, the issue is never resolved, and you come home angry. (Or worse, you don’t say anything, let the frustration build up on a four-hour flight, and take it out on an unsuspecting bystander.) But these typical approaches to conflict, personal or professional, rarely resolve the issue at hand.
Instead, conflict is best resolved through “crucial conversations,” a term coined by training company VitalSmarts that refers to “open dialogue around high-stakes, emotional, or risky topics.” I’ve spent more than two decades studying and teaching how to approach crucial conversations based on their training, and have witnessed how simple changes can not only shift individual behavior, but also improve organizational climate and performance. (VitalSmarts found that each conversation not held, or not held well, costs an organization $7,500.)
My experience with crucial conversations is why I didn’t end up coming home to California angry after that seat mishap: I asked a flight attendant if she was available to talk, calmly stated the facts, explained how the switch impacted me, and asked for her insight on the situation. She ended up finding me a better seat — and giving me an upgrade on my next flight.
You can use the same process, and hopefully see similar results, for crucial conversations in the workplace with these five steps, based on VitalSmarts training and my own experience.
1. Ask Permission
If you want to approach someone about a difficult situation — whether it’s inappropriate behavior, feedback on a presentation, or a personal matter — ask them first: “I’ve got some questions and concerns to share with you. When would be the best time to discuss them?”
According to VitalSmarts, only one percent of employees feel extremely confident voicing their concerns in crucial moments. Create a safe space for the conversation to occur — both figuratively and literally. They should be in the right head space, and you should secure a private area to talk.
2. State the Facts
Start the conversation with objective statements and observations. If you’re approaching a coworker about lack of preparedness, for example, was it a one-time occurrence or a pattern of behavior? Do you have a specific example?
Try writing down the facts before your conversation. Putting pen to paper always helps me clarify my points (and potentially adjust my initial observations), not to mention stay focused during the conversation.
3. Tell Your Story
After stating the facts, explain how these observations or actions have impacted you. In other words, provide some context — but be careful not to place blame. The most important thing to remember at this stage is to use “I” statements: “When this happened, I felt frustrated” instead of “You made me feel frustrated.” By sharing your story, you create space for them to share theirs.
4. Listen to Their Perspective
Ask for their side: “This is what I have observed. Is there something I’m missing? How do you perceive it?”
You’ve had time to prepare, so don’t expect them to have an answer right away. After you ask a difficult question, prepare to listen. I follow the “rule of six”: Be quiet for six seconds and let someone process the question.
5. Set a Time to Follow Up
After sharing both sides, allow for a reflective period. Acknowledge that you probably both have areas to improve, and identify a few ways you could help each other get there. Then, schedule a follow-up conversation to help move into action.
If there’s one thing to remember about resolving conflict, it’s this: The most common obstacle to having conversations is that people forget they’re meant to be conversations. If you’re willing to give feedback, you need to be willing to hear it. You’ve got to start with yourself.