A Framework for Mastering Challenging Interactions

Five steps toward coherent conversation and authentic exchanges.

We humans come together in different ways whenever we want to accomplish something. This is called organizing and it puts us in a relationship with one another. These relationships are built on, moved by, and sustained through conversation. Organizations, therefore, are little more than conversations. I realize I’m playing fast and loose with the transitive property here, but it makes sense to me.

A team of senior leaders wanted to change the way they were talking to each other. This interest in improving these capabilities also extended from the team outward into the rest of the organization. People all over the place felt they didn’t know how to interact with each other in ways that suited their professional setting. They were very good at the informal, chatty, friendly stuff, but froze up at or avoided the more challenging, “work-related” kinds of conversations that were needed to support the various kinds of improvements they desired.

People wanted to get more comfortable with giving one another tough messages, speaking truth to power, and not shying away from the emotional content of their work.

These desires got us looking into what others had already discovered about these kinds of challenges. As it turns out, a lot of people have done a lot of thinking about what goes into effective human interaction, and it all boils down to five steps:

  1. Prepare

  2. Learn the other’s story

  3. Share your story

  4. Problem solve together

  5. Agree

There are two essential things to keep in mind, whether you use this framework or another one. First, this kind of approach is not intended for every conversation you have over the course of the day. You don’t really need this to decide where to go to lunch. You do need it for the 10% of conversations that are so difficult that they consume 90% of your energy and attention. 

Second, you stand a much greater chance of getting to a successful outcome if you are able to adopt a learning posture. Let go of believing your job is to persuade the other of the correctness and virtue of your point of view. Instead, see what you can learn from one another.

Step 1: Preparation is the most important step in this process. Never go into a difficult conversation thinking you can wing it. Do your homework. You may even wind up deciding it’s not worth it.

Step 2: If you do start a conversation, be interested in what is important to the other person. Ask questions.

Step 3: Seek permission to share your experience and connect your point of view (where possible) to the needs, assumptions, values, and perceptions of the person (or people) you are talking with.

Expect to move back and forth between these two stages. It’s like a dance. You are trying to build a shared understanding — to move together — not reach an agreement at this point.

Step 4: Once you feel you have everything on the table, see about solving whatever the problem is. Sometimes you will need to talk about more than the substance of the issue between you. Sometimes you will need to talk about the process of your interaction or the rules of the game. Have a conversation about the conversation.

Step 5: Don’t forget to agree. And be open to the possibility that where you initially thought you wanted to go when you were doing all that preparation may not be where you wind up. There may be some very good reasons that emerge in the course of the conversation to adapt your expectations. Remember, this is about learning.

If you are interested in seeing more of this framework, you can find a more detailed outline here.

The title of this post makes reference to “mastering” challenging interactions. The thing is, mastery is not about reaching the end of something. It is about committing to being in the practice. The work of tending to the quality of our conversations, of being in relationship, of becoming an effective organization — never ends.