How to Have a Difficult Talk


We all have discussions we dread. Maybe it’s giving news of a delayed shipment to a customer, an unfavorable performance review to an employee, or a gripe with a neighbor. Sometimes it feels as though your choice is to hold your tongue or lose a friend.

Not true, says Sharon Grady ’79. In April she offered a workshop-style seminar to 40 Boston-based parents and alumni with tips and techniques to manage these conversations effectively.

Grady, who majored in English, earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and trained at Harvard Law School’s Advanced Program on Negotiation, now heads The Grady Company, a firm dedicated to improving the candor and effectiveness of senior-level dialogue.

Drawing on the book Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton, and Heen, Grady pointed out that the conversations we struggle with most share three defining characteristics: disagreement over what happened, strong feelings, and threats to our sense of who we are or aspire to be.

She illustrates these with a story from a consulting assignment with a Midwestern firm: The CEO told Grady that he’d assigned the firm’s best project administrator to work with her team. “You’ll love her,” he said.

Not true. The younger woman seemed sulky and “forgot” to complete a number of the easier administrative tasks Grady had requested. Yet when Grady sat down with her to find out what was wrong, she claimed that everything was fine.

Baffled by her helper’s poor performance, Grady took up the issue with the CEO in what could have been a difficult conversation.

“About my project administrator?” Grady began.

“Yes, I’ve heard you two were having some trouble,” he said.

This caught Grady off guard—in what she calls an “identity quake.” She knew herself to be fair-minded and easy to work with, yet it sounded as though the CEO had information that called into question this self-identity.

“Why don’t you tell me what is going on?” he continued.

Grady recovered from the “quake,” and rather than offering a defensive response, she began with observable facts, listing the tasks she’d asked the project administrator to perform, which the young woman had agreed to do yet failed to complete.

“Those are tasks for an administrative assistant,” he observed.

“Well, that’s what a project administrator is.”

“Not in this firm,” he said. “We consider project administrators to be professional positions.”

“Problem solved,” Grady tells her Wesleyan seminar participants. “We hired an administrative assistant for the team and assigned higher-level tasks to the project administrator.”

Her discussion with the CEO illustrates use of a helpful tool, says Grady. It’s the “ladder of inference,” for which she credits business theorists Chris Argyris and Don Schon. Starting with observable phenomena—on the bottom rung—we all pick and choose the information we believe is important and, going up the ladder, develop judgments based on these items, until we reach the top, where we’ve formed a conclusion.

“The judgments we make are based on our assumptions about what’s true and how the world works,” notes Grady. “In this example, the project administrator and I both assumed that we had a shared view of what a project administrator was supposed to do. But, in fact, we had different assumptions, which led us to different conclusions about what was true: hers was that I was the problem; mine was that she was the problem.

“It’s only by dropping down below the top rung of the ladder to investigate the lower rungs that we can really understand what drives our disagreements. And, once we understand that, the other person is much less likely to seem like an evil-doer and more apt to seem like a reasonable person we can actually work with.”

And how do you manage a conversation when you really disagree with what the other person says is true?

“Ask questions,” says Grady. “As long as you are in the mind-set of ‘you are wrong and I am right,’ the discussion will remain difficult. The problem is that when we come into conflict, the first thing we tend to do is advocate our position. All that does is encourage the other person to advocate back.”

“Try asking questions of other persons so that you can understand their points of view. Once they get what they’re thinking out on the table, they’ll be calmer and better able to hear you when you share your opinion. That’s important, because if they can’t really hear you, they’re never going to change their mind.”

“What do you do when you have to deliver a decision that the person you’re talking to disagrees with?” one participant wondered.

“Acknowledge and allow the other person’s point of view while expressing your decision,” Grady says. “That sounds like, ‘I understand your concerns and I can’t change the decision.’ That’s much more effective than, ‘I understand your concerns but I can’t change the decision.’