difficult conversation

Why the work-around doesn’t work

20160227_152827.pngWhy the work-around doesn’t work

I once had a senior manager tell me that the reason she wouldn’t confront one of her direct reports about an issue was that she wanted to “preserve his dignity.”

Instead, she worked around him, hoping he’d figure it out.

Of course, he didn’t.

We have probably all seen (or done!) this at work. It’s understandable. Most of us spend more time at work than any place else and it can seem easier to avoid, dodge, or preserve than to address a situation head-on. Especially if it’s a situation we’ve allowed to fester. The problem is this quick work-around is obvious to everyone – often even to the person who’s being avoided – and it undermines morale of entire groups. The person at the center of the problem doesn’t get a direct opportunity to address whatever’s going wrong, which is certainly not a way to preserve their dignity, and avoidance breeds cynicism and distrust.

The telltale sign of a work-around is if you’re having a conversation about a problem with someone other than who the problem is about.

When you avoid saying what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it, you’re working around the problem.

This can go from small things (not assigning a project) to organization-wide structures put in place to avoid one person’s behavior. The cost over time is much higher to work around the problem than to address it.

Next time you catch yourself having a parking-lot conversation consider these alternate approaches:

Say the unsaid.

If the manager had taken the direct report aside and told him clearly what the problem was, she could have communicated in a dignity-preserving manner what he needed to do to improve instead of leaving him wondering why people didn’t respect him or want to work with him. Nobody wants to be the kid other kids don’t like but we can’t figure out why. Say what others are afraid to say.

Say the unsaid to the person who needs to hear it.

Respect your colleagues enough to tell them what they need to hear. Feedback isn’t easy sometimes, but it’s the only way we grow. Delivered with compassion and good intent, it’s the essence of professional respect.


Hear their side of things with an open mind. They may give you fresh insights or tell you something you didn’t know. Be open, so you can design the solution with them. If they’re “the problem” they need to be part of “the solution.”

Tell others what you’re doing

If you change your behavior, people notice. In the absence of an explanation, they will make up a reason and we are a creative bunch! So tell them what’s going on. The more direct you can be about why you’re trying something different, the more likely they are to understand and, when it works, emulate your behaviors.

If you’d like a straight forward read on how to work with others around you, The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud has specific examples you can apply to many situations.

Is the initial positive actually working against you?


Remember the initial positive?

First, tell them something positive, then tell them what’s wrong and conclude with another positive.

I’m sure it sounded like a good idea at the time. Especially for those of us who don’t really want to deliver bad news to people, it feels like a way to cushion the blow, from the messenger’s perspective.

But have you been on the receiving end of this conversation? It can feel something like this:

initial positive! “You’re doing great on the Kaboodle project, blah blah blah.”

(Right, you’re just saying all that because you’ve got some sort of gripe you’re about to unveil) 

here comes the bad news….“I think you could do better at managing your time on the KitandKaboodle project because….”

(Oh, so you think it’s my fault that Pat isn’t pulling his/her weight and now you’re blaming me. Great. I knew this conversation was really about that, and not Kaboodle)

and wrapping up with a positive! “But you’re making some good calls on the Zipperdoo project and I hope you’ll keep up the good work!”

(Yeah, until you assign Pat to that one too, then I’ll get the blame for slippage and it’ll be my fault again…)


(Thanks? All you did was tell me I was messing up the KitandKaboodle project.)

Okay, so that might be a bit extreme, but doesn’t some version of that happen when you’re delivering the positive-negative-postive sandwich? All the focus is on that middle piece and the positives are left to the side like unwanted bread crusts.

But a lot of us out there managing people were trained to do exactly this – and it’s supposed to make things better. Help the person you’re talking to see their strengths, talk about the things you should’t just sweep under the carpet, and then focus them on improvement in those areas with some assurance that you’re seeing the good work they’re doing.

Just tell me upfront

I had the chance to observe a couple of different exercises in the past month in which people were practicing a variation of this conversation.

Most of the time, some flavor of the sandwich was in play and sometimes the positives were so heavy the “employee” had no idea they had weaknesses.

By contrast, the most effective people put everything on the table at once.

“I’d like to talk about your excellent work on the Kaboodle and Zipperdoo projects and find out why we’re falling short of the schedule on KitandKaboodle. Which do you want to discuss first?”

When you’re going into a performance review, you don’t want to be surprised by what feels like a gotcha negative in the middle, do you?


Transparency might be the latest buzzword, especially if you work in government at any level, but it’s a key factor in this scenario. By getting the sandwich ingredients on the table, it puts you in a position to work together on the assembly. Maybe the person you’re talking with needs to be able to discuss the positives first, maybe they’d rather get that biggie off the table first, but you won’t know if you don’t ask. And if you ask, you’re treating them as a partner in the conversation.

There’s a lot of research and practical information available about how to handle the rest of the conversation, but ditching the initial positive might be a simple first step.

Here are a few resources I’ve used – I’d be curious to know of others people find useful:

Difficult Conversations: how to discuss what matters most

Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How you and your team get unstuck to get results

Ask for it: How women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want

Hello, Conflict Calling!

I’m not sure what possessed me to schedule a difficult one-and-a-half-hour conference call for first thing on a Monday morning a while back, but I did. And when we used the entire time and had to continue it into the three to five p.m. slot, I felt bookended by conflict.

There are a lot of days like this. A lot of weeks like this, aren’t there?

In this particular situation, we were going through a lengthy project topic by topic, sharing comments and points of view, which sometimes sounded more like “we won’t do this” and “well, we need to have this.”  Did I mention this was all on a conference call?

I put on my best listening persona and tried to really sink into the role of hearing what was important to both of us and listening for clues. I suppose the fact that it was Monday was ultimately helpful. I was reasonably well rested after a lovely weekend and able to step out of the situation a bit to notice the times when I wasn’t as focused or as effective. I noticed several situations that made it harder to communicate well:

  1. Several times it was clear to me that the other party hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the part of the document we were discussing. (Why do you keep saying things that aren’t accurate?)
  2. There was one instance when they were pushing for something we couldn’t do. I couldn’t offer what they needed; they weren’t hearing the base piece of information (not ours to offer) so I felt like we were in a one-sided argument. (Why can’t you stop asking about this? I can’t give you what you want!)
  3. There were times when I felt frustrated by the sheer number of follow-up items and stressed by the impending deadline. (How will we ever pull this together if you keep asking for more changes?)
  4. The conference call itself is sometimes a problem. In the absence of body language – poised to speak, mouth open, nodding – people tend to talk longer than necessary in order to get their point across in the void. (When will s/he stop talking so I can answer the question and we can move on?

The most humbling realization, however, was that the folks on the other end of the line were probably thinking the same things about me and my co-workers. There were some sections we’d suggested changing or adding that were covered elsewhere. I could tell that they, too, were nervous about making our deadline work, there were things we were pretty stubborn about, and I’ll bet you a nickle I talked too long at least once!

This evening, I was thinking about the whole situation and the great satisfaction I get out of solving complicated problems. I love this kind of work, but it’s not easy.

We all have to deal with work situations that are full of those moments of conflict. Listening carefully and just saying out loud some of those things in parentheses seems to help. It also pushes us to think empathetically – what’s going on with that other person and how can I reach them?

Here are some of the things I tried:

  1. Instead of “why didn’t you read this”, I tried “I know you just got this, do you need time to read it?”
  2. Instead of “I can’t do that” , we offered “Would it help to understand the relationship between these two pieces of information?”
  3. Instead of “We can’t keep adding to this list”, how about “We’re adding a lot to our list, perhaps at the end we should take a few minutes to discuss how we’ll get it done?”
  4. But that last one…..I’m still not sure how to get body language in a conference call, Skype, perhaps?

What are your tips for conference call negotiations?