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Managing Difficult Conversations at Work

This book is based on over 20 years' experience of teaching, researching and developing the open-to-learning approach to difficult conversations.

It is designed to be used as a self-help book from which readers can learn the principles and skills to help them improve their ability to cope with even the most difficult conversations at work.

The skills gained from the book can be further developed through the individual phone-coaching sessions and by attending the online or face-to-face introductory courses that I offer.

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SYNOPSIS

Difficult conversations at work can be highly destructive both for the people involved and for the life and work of the organisation to which they belong. Handling a conflict of views, saying something critical, resolving divided loyalties, responding to pressure - if these and similar situations that make conversations difficult are not dealt with effectively, then both morale and task achievement inevitably suffer.

The aim of this book is to enable those operating at all levels in an organisation to manage difficult conversations in a way that enhances relationships and improves performance.

The book provides a unique new approach to analysing the requirements common to all difficult conversations and employing strategies which will work for both parties. It is based on a coaching programme which the authors have been working on and delivering for 20 years. The book explains: common pitfalls in approaching difficult conversations; the ten most common types of difficult conversation; the prevailing "closed-to-learning" approach to such situations; the three principles of the authors' new "open-to-learning" system; the form of words required to implement these principles; and numerous examples and exercises designed to improve readers' understanding and technique in putting this new approach into practice.

The book explains:

ENDORSEMENTS

"This book is clear, easy to navigate and full of examples that everyone will relate to. It addresses issues which are at the heart of people's experience of the workplace and will help to build more effective working relationships, which are fundamental to service delivery in any organisation."
Jan Barker, Learning and Development Officer, Birmingham City Council

"Managing difficult conversations dealing with differences in opinion at work is a universal concern. More than 10 years ago one of the authors (Mel Myers) introduced managers at Delcam to a reflective approach to dealing with issues in response to our problems in managing change in a growing organisation. Together we learnt the value of taking an open approach to discussions, recognising the need to promote partnership and exchange of all relevant information. We gained an understanding that we should question assumptions about colleagues' reactions when formulating our response. We found that this considered approach brought genuine benefits in supporting change with less stress. These concepts helped us maintain the open culture that is essential in a growing young company.

In this book Sue Clark and Mel Myers provide an excellent insight into the problems of having difficult conversations and using a reflective approach to manage these successfully. The annotated examples are a particularly helpful aid to understanding. Readers should keep this book close to hand to help find guidance for a forthcoming difficult discussion and to help reflect on and learn from the experience of a tough episode at work."
Ed Lambourne, Technical Director, Delcam plc

"This book addresses in a practical and helpful way a set of techniques designed to make various difficult conversations not only easier but also developmental and helpful. A more open and learning approach emphasises that whilst no-body would claim such conversations could be made easy they can often be much better. There is a lot of practical advice and some theory to help us do a better job in a critical area of effective management."
Robin Wensley, Professor of Policy and Marketing, Warwick Business School, Warwick University

CONTENTS

Acknowledgements

Introduction

What this book is about
Who the book is for
Why we have written the book
How the book is set out
Ways to use the book

Part One: The Problem and Approaches to It

Chapter 1. Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

A universal problem
What we mean by difficult conversations
Ten common types of difficult conversation at work
Adverse outcomes of difficult conversations at work
Exercises to help you relate the ten types of difficult conversation to your own experience

Chapter 2. Closed and Open Approaches to Managing Difficult Conversations

The need to make difficulties discussable
It is the way we think that determines how effectively we manage difficult conversations
The forms of words that result from our thinking
Two ways of approaching a difficult conversation: the closed-to-learning and open-to-learning models
How we can move out of closed and into open mode
Key Exercise Step 1: Recording one of your own difficult conversations

Part Two: The Closed-to-Learning Approach

Chapter 3. Three Characteristics of Closed-to-Learning Thinking

The closed-to-learning model: closed thinking
Characteristic One: We do not question our assumptions
Characteristic Two: We do not promote partnership
Characteristic Three: We do not promote the exchange of all relevant information
The three characteristics trap us in old habits of thought
Exercises to aid recognition of the three closed-to-learning characteristics in your own thinking
Key Exercise Step 2: Evaluating your thoughts in terms of the closed-to-learning model

Chapter 4. The Forms of Words that Result from Closed-to-Learning Thinking

The closed-to-learning model: closed forms of words
Forms of words: the effects of closed-to-learning thinking on advocacy and inquiry
Closed advocacy
Closed inquiry
Exercises for identifying the closed advocacy and closed inquiry and their effects on a conversation
Key Exercise Step 3: Evaluating your words in terms of the closed-to-learning model

Chapter 5. Annotated Examples of the Closed-to-Learning Approach

The ten types of difficult conversation
How the annotated examples are set out
Why we focus on person A
  1. Saying something critical
  2. Communicating unwelcome information that we are obliged to convey
  3. Saying something we think will go against group consensus
  4. Retrieving a setback in an interpersonal relationship
  5. Engaging with someone who will not discuss things with us
  6. Dealing with a conflict of loyalties
  7. Coping with being criticised
  8. Responding to non-verbal behaviour that bothers us
  9. Responding to pressure to go beyond what we feel comfortable with
  10. Handling a conflict of views between ourselves and another person

Part Three: The Open-to-Learning Approach

Chapter 6. The Three Principles of Open-to-Learning Thinking

The open-to-learning model: open thinking
Principle One: Question any relevant assumptions
Principle Two: Promote partnership
Principle Three: Promote the exchange of all relevant information
Using the three principles of open-to-learning thinking interactively
Exercises to help you put the three principles of open-to-learning thinking into practice
Key Exercise Step 4: Revising your thoughts in terms of the open-to-learning model

Chapter 7. The Forms of Words that Express Open-to-Learning Thinking

The open-to-learning model: open forms of words
Forms of words: the effects of open-to-learning thinking on advocacy and inquiry
Open advocacy
Open Inquiry
Exercises for practising advocacy and inquiry that express open-to-learning thinking
Key Exercise Step 5: Revising your words in terms of the open-to-learning model

Chapter 8. Moving from Closed to Open Thinking in Difficult Conversations

Making use of negative feelings: ''alert & cue''
Being a reflective practitioner
The need for ongoing, reflective practice
Exercises to help you move from closed to open thinking in your conversations

Chapter 9. Annotated Examples of the Open-to-Learning Approach

The ten types of difficult conversation
How the annotated examples are set out
  1. Saying something critical
  2. Communicating unwelcome information that we are obliged to convey
  3. Saying something we think will go against group consensus
  4. Retrieving a setback in an interpersonal relationship
  5. Engaging with someone who will not discuss things with us
  6. Dealing with a conflict of loyalties
  7. Coping with being criticised
  8. Responding to non-verbal behaviour that bothers us
  9. Responding to pressure to go beyond what we feel comfortable with
  10. Handling a conflict of views between ourselves and another person

Chapter 10. Using the Open-to-Learning Approach

Using the open-to-learning approach in an extended difficult conversation: an annotated example

Part Four: The Organisational Context and Closed and Open-to-Learning Approaches to Difficult Conversations

Chapter 11. Difficult Conversations that Stem from the Workplace and Its Culture

Closed and open interpretations of ''social virtues''and their effects on difficult conversations
Exercise: evaluating any mismatches between the social virtues your organisation espouses and how people behave in practice
Aspects of organisational life where closed interpretations of social virtues create particular pressures
The open-to-learning manager
The manager as role model
Exercise: identifying any mismatches between the social virtues you espouse and how you operate in practice

Conclusion

Appendix A. Where the Ideas in This Book Come From

Our professional development work with practitioners
The literature

Appendix B. Instructions for Key Exercise

Step 1: Recording one of your own difficult conversations
Step 2: Evaluating your thoughts in terms of the closed-to-learning model
Step 3: Evaluating your words in terms of the closed-to-learning model
Step 4: Revising your thoughts in terms of the open-to-learning model
Step 5: Revising your words in terms of the open-to-learning model

References

Glossary

Index

PUBLICATION DETAILS

Authors: Sue Clark & Mel Myers
Publisher: Management Books 2000 Ltd

Publication Date: July 2007

Paperback
256 pages

ISBN-10: 1852525401
ISBN-13: 978-1852525408

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Sue Clark and Mel Myers are both chartered psychologists with over 20 years' experience in coaching interpersonal skills. Before setting up their current practices they worked together in local government as educational psychologists and later as members of the senior management team in a large, urban West Midlands authority. They have been researching and developing this new approach to managing difficult conversations for many years, and have won endorsements for their approach from numerous grateful clients.

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