How To Make Tough Conversations Easy by Nick Morgan

How To Make Tough Conversations Easy

Nick Morgan


We all have them. Conversations that we dread, that don’t go the way we hope they would, and that some of us even agonize about afterward. Whether it’s asking your boss for a raise, negotiating with a supplier, or figuring out how to give a negative evaluation to an employee – conversations about difficult topics bedevil us. We dislike the upset beforehand, so we tend to put them off. We dislike the tension while they’re going on, so we tend to cut them short and don’t get what we want. We’re not at our best under those circumstances, and that further cuts into our effectiveness. And we find them haunting us afterward, thinking about all the things we could have said.

It’s time for those conversations to go better. This book will take you through a process that will help you stop dreading difficult conversations, get what you need out of them, and look back at them with satisfaction. Let’s get started.

1. Project the future emotional state you want, not the one you fear.

The dread that precedes tough talks comes from fearing that the experience will leave you worse off than you were before – emotionally wounded, perhaps, possibly humiliated, almost certainly feeling bad because you didn’t get what you want.

Here’s what’s happening: Your mind is projecting a bad outcome because of your fear. That creates a doom loop that has your emotions feeding off your negative thinking, and your negative thinking feeding off your emotions. There’s nowhere to go but down.

It’s time for some positive talk. When you think about the coming conversation, don’t let the negative thoughts crowd in. Instead, tell yourself something like, “I am confident and serene. I will handle the conversation beautifully.” Use your own words and concepts, specific to your situation, but that should give you the idea. Keep your mantra simple and positive and avoid negative statements (don’t say, “I won’t be afraid”; say, “I will be courageous.”

Rather than dwelling on the possible bad outcome and feeling so miserable you never have the conversation, project yourself into that happy future state.

The idea is to drown out the negative emotions with positive ones. That will prevent you from getting worked up, and it will stop your mind from feeding off your emotions, ending the doom loop.

But you have to practice it faithfully. What I can tell you is that if you practice saying your mantra to yourself several times a day for a few minutes, and especially whenever negative thoughts develop, you will find yourself shedding your emotional discomfort. An especially good time to practice your mantra is when you are waking up or falling asleep. In those half-awake moments, our conscious minds seem to access the unconscious – where the fear resides – more easily.

It takes a while – sometimes several weeks – but stick with it. The results are worth it. They will surprise you. One day you’ll suddenly notice that your stomach is no longer tied up in knots about that conversation. You’ll face it with equanimity.

Once you’ve achieved that happy state, you’re ready for the next step.

2. Decide what the conversation is about.

It seems obvious: It’s about what you’ve been dreading – asking your boss for a raise (and getting shot down); trying to persuade a colleague to change an approach to a major software implementation (and getting shot down); accusing an employee of pilfering company supplies (and getting stonewalled).

No. The conversation is about articulating to your boss all the great things you’ve done for the company, or perhaps pointing out that people at your level of experience are making more than what you’re making now. Or the conversation is about how we can save tons of time, money and effort if we do the software implementation in the right way. Or the conversation is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, both good and bad.

That’s framing. And it’s the key to a successful conversation. If you frame an issue with your positive end in mind, it will come out very differently than if you frame it around your fears. You want to begin the conversation with a brisk, confident, statement like, “Let’s talk today about the money my cost-saving ideas have meant to this company and how I can be fairly compensated for that.”

Do you see the difference? Right away, the issue on the table is about good things like fairness, and your positive contribution, as well as your compensation, rather than your boss’ penny-pinching.

How you frame the conversation will determine how it can go. Always look for the positive setting, and one that assumes your position, and then puts the negotiation on how that works out. In other words, it’s not, “Can I get a raise?” because that sets up the listener to say “No.” Rather, it’s “Let’s talk about how the company is going to compensate me for my contributions of the last twelve months.” The different phrasing assumes that you deserve better compensation; the question on the table is how much.

Of course, this kind of positive framing won’t stop a complete Grinch from saying something like, “Bah Humbug! The company has no intention of compensating you for anything you’ve done!” But then at least the lines have been drawn in a way that lets you debate that issue, not some other one like how hard the boss’s life it right now.

3. Identify the elephant in the room.

If there’s an elephant in the room – a big, obvious problem that everyone involved knows about, but for one reason or another is avoiding – then you can usually get good mileage out of naming that beast. Sometimes you can change a long-festering issue, other times, you’ll just get a collective sigh of relief. But you’ll almost always get respect for courage and integrity.

It’s really important, then, to think clearly about any such elephants beforehand, in the calm before the battle, when your emotions are not roiled and you have some time to sort out what you have to say. The idea is to state the problem or issue in a way that points back to your frame. “I know the indictments and the fifteen straight quarters of losses have taken a heavy toll on the company and its management. That’s why my cost-saving strategies have been so important. Without them, Blunderbuss Enterprises might not even been able to avoid bankruptcy. In Q3 alone, we put $5 million back to the bottom line . . . “

Bring up the elephant before anyone else does, and you will strengthen your side of the conversation rather than weakening it.

4. Listen and reflect, don’t defend.

As the conversation gets going, the opposite party may well fling brickbats at you, no matter how hard you work to keep things positive. “Of course I take company supplies! I haven’t had a raise in six years! The company owes me!”

Those kind of emotional curve balls are designed to deflect attention, and induce guilt, not to resolve the situation positively. And you’ll find the conversation rapidly spinning out of control if you chase your interlocutor down those particular rabbit holes. Instead, say, “What I hear you saying is that you feel that you’ve gone a long time without a raise, is that right?” Then, once you’ve got agreement on what was just said, you can make your move. “Let’s talk about your raise at another time. Right now, let’s resolve the issue of those company supplies, and how much the losses are costing us.”

Get the employee focused on the shrinkage issue, rather than compensation, and you can stay focused on the real problem.

You have to recognize that hard conversations, the kind that you keep putting off because you’re afraid of the answer, often involve some tough bargaining, and the likelihood of an acceptable outcome becomes much more likely if everyone involved feels that their needs and emotions have been heard and respected. So be prepared to spend some time doing just that, using your reflective listening skills.

People often won’t identify how they’re feeling. Instead, they’ll make an accusation. “You never . . .” “You always . . .” What you need to listen for here is the emotional feeling behind the charge. “What I hear you saying is that you feel underappreciated. Is that right?”

You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to talk to someone once these emotional attitudes behind the statements, charges, and accusations are acknowledged. But you have to listen closely and carefully, without defensiveness, to hear the emotion. It’s easy to get defensive, and occupied in refuting the charge, rather than hearing the attitude behind what’s being said. You must remain open, and be willing to acknowledge that your actions have perhaps led to someone else feeling hurt, afraid, lonely, or distrustful.

The key is to stay open no matter what. Emotional conversations tend to induce feelings of defensiveness, guilt, and anger, and those are explosive emotions to handle at any time, and certainly under the gun. Prepare yourself beforehand by thinking through the possibilities, but then listen hard in the moment, because you may well be surprised. Many of us are not aware of how our actions affect others. This is a good time to find out.

5. Name the differences.

Once the conversation has gone on for a while, you’ve framed it successfully, listened to the emotions carefully, and reflected them, it’s time to state clearly what the remaining differences are in the context of your initial frame. “So let me clarify for a moment. I hear you saying that the company is prepared to offer me a 3 percent raise and the chance at a 50 percent bonus at the end of the calendar year if those revenue targets are met. What my research indicated was that a 6 percent raise would put me in a fairer position given my achievements. It sounds like we agree on the bonus arrangement, and we’re 3 percent apart on the raise. Is that the way you hear it?”

Once the other party agrees, or you reach agreement on the differences, then you’re in a strong position to make a counter offer, or accept the other person’s proposal with conditions, or whatever you feel is appropriate. If you’re too far apart, you can suggest a break in the discussion for both parties to think things over, and get agreement on when to resume.

That gives you an opportunity to restate your goals, if you still are far apart and you want to continue to negotiate.

Always begin by stating what both parties agree on, in order to stress the positive, making it more likely you’ll be able to move forward on the remaining issues. It’s why negotiators in very difficult, protracted bargaining impasses spend time on getting a mutual understanding on things like the shape of the table, the conditions for negotiation, and so on. Once we get into the habit of agreeing, we build positive connection and emotional rapport, and we’re more likely to conclude with a final agreement.

Of course, some negotiations are too difficult, or too negatively charged, for that kind of atmospheric conditioning to help much, but most everyday conversations are helped enormously.

6. State your emotional situation and needs.

Just as you need to be open to hearing the other party’s emotional story, you need to be ready to state yours. In very fraught situations, of course, this can be ferociously difficult. But sometimes simply saying how you feel will lead to a breakthrough or at least an important acknowledgment from the other side. “I’ve been hurting for several weeks ever since that last conversation in which you said my contribution to the company was essentially nil. I need to feel like I’ve got your support when I’m going up against that tough negotiating team from XYZ Enterprises. I need to feel like the company has my back.”

A lot of the agony of these hard conversations comes from unexpressed hurt feelings, so rather than make accusations, state the facts, and say how you feel as a result. You will feel a good deal better just to get your feelings out in the open. Make them the “I” statements of psychological lore, rather than “You said” statements. Explaining how you feel is something that the other person can’t argue with. “You” statements will quickly put the other party on the defensive.

While stating how you feel won’t always turn the conversation in your favor, it will almost always give you added leverage.

7. Conclude with agreement on action.

Always go armed with the clear knowledge of what you can accept, so you’ll know when you’re ready to push for agreement. Sometimes, all you can get is the willingness to keep talking. In both cases, it’s extremely important to reach a mutual understanding on whatever the next steps are – time and place of your next meeting, further outside research that needs to be done, or a complete meeting of minds. Whatever you can agree on, state it clearly and use it to define the action that will result.

Tough conversations can lead to extraordinary breakthroughs, happy surprises, and emotional healing – but only if you actually have them. Prepare yourself to keep the emotions as positive as possible. Frame the conversation in ways that give the other person a choice among positive outcomes for you. Be open about big outstanding issues. Listen openly without defensiveness and reflect the underlying emotions of the other party. Name the areas of agreement and the ones where differences remain. Be open about your feelings, too. And move forward on action.

Taking these steps won’t make tough conversations easy, but they will create the conditions for a successful, mutually satisfying outcome.

Good luck.

Inviting Life to a Death Scene: the day four terrorists were killed and heaven reserved a place for me at the scene

Palestinians gather around a car where four Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli troops on March 12, 2008

On March 12, 2008 I had an appointment with death. What I mean is, I had a divine appointment scheduled, unbeknownst to me, at a murder scene.

It began with an appointment with a man who makes wooden crosses: a run-of-the-mill visit to Deheisheh, the largest refugee camp in Bethlehem.  At the time I was living in Bethlehem, Israel/Palestinian Territories. I went to meet my friend David and a local man to pick-up a handmade cross to be a prototype for a large order of other such crosses, made of olive wood by the man’s father to be sold overseas to help pay for medical expenses for his twenty-something son, a paraplegic after being shot by soldiers several years prior.

When I arrived I saw my friend, Shaadi, a Palestinian who often gives tours of the area to visitors. He was with two Iranian-Americans and preparing to go to Mar Saba (a monastery in the Judean wilderness outside of Bhem). He asked if I wanted to go. I did. So David and I went – postponing our meeting with the woodworker until that night.

After several hours at the monastery we returned to Bethlehem. It was shortly after 6pm. Shaadi got a phone call. Hot with distress he turned to us, “The IDF just killed four men in Bethlehem, in their car, they were wanted men.” David and I asked questions. The visitors waited. Shaadi said it just happened, just then, they were killed by a rocket his friend thought, one of the dead was a major Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank — and Shaadi was going to the scene. “Do you want to go?”
Yeah. We do.

So, we did. Two American believers, two Iranian-American tourists, and two Palestinians (Shaadi and our taxi driver, Abed).

You want me to describe the scene; and I will BUT, see that:

1. God in His kindness and His omniscience brought me there – He placed some of His light in a very dark place.

2. It was an honor to be able to be there.

3. It was an honor to be with Bethlehem in an evening of highest turmoil and grief.

4. It was a turning point for me as well.

It was a small car – a red one, four door, maybe 20 years old. Hundreds of people rimmed it. Abed told me to stay close, and I did. He took me right up to the car, through the crowds of frozen electricity, like the stain a lightning bolt leaves in a stormy sky. The windows were crumpled, shattered under the onslaught of machine-gun fire. It wasn’t a rocket, as Shaadi’s friend supposed, it was a spray of bullets from a special unit of Israel Defense Forces, clothed as Palestinians, riding inconspicuously in a Bethlehem taxi. Reports said they attempted to arrest the four men (3 Islamic Jihad, 1 Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade). The most significant man, Shehadah, they wanted for 8 years. The four men, laden with weapons, fired on the IDF special forces when they attempted to arrest them, and the IDF immediately killed them all. The car itself made new clarity of “riddled with bullets.” Dozens of holes every where: each seat inside with its own red-red-red-red bullseye: four concentrated blood stains at each passenger’s chest-level, with the trails of helter-skelter bullets splayed around.

Weapons found on the men in the red car

(for video taken about 15 minutes before we arrived on the scene
(take note: blood and bodies) )

(for a news article on the event:

“Faddal” (“please go ahead”) I said, moving back at one point to allow a boy, maybe ten, to slide past me – his hands gingerly touching the car as he squeezed by. His eyes surprised me. Not fear, not demand, but frankness. He wanted to see up-close.

I was suddenly tired, rigidly sad. I wanted all those kids to be protected from this. I wanted someone to take them home, to keep them from an impression of reality more likely to breed hatred than love. I wanted them to have Father God’s kingdom within them, to remove them from the competition of the kings and rulers of this world.

A wall of people my standing couch of false relaxation, I drifted toward those I came with. Shaadi was leading them back to the taxi. He jolted around, “Where’s Daaaaaw….?!” – the “n” swallowed by our eye contact. I smiled sincerely, “Thanks.” I knew he was looking out for me. In an ocean of mayhem, I appreciated it a lot.

Next stop: the hospital where the bodies were being taken.

I should add it worked out impeccably we happened to be in a cab with Palestinians when the news broke. It put us in-the-know and also gave us language and understanding of the event, plus the mobility to be dropped off right outside the hospital before Abed went to park the van. Also, it was amazing we “happened” to be tugged out of Bethlehem that day, particularly because the scene was 1/4 mile from my apartment and the circle of chaos and closed streets was encompassing.

Thousands of people swarmed the hospital’s front and back entrances.

Three corpses on stretchers were passed overhead, rafts on waves of sobriety and hysterics. The grand entrance of one body was buoyed by one incessant phrase and one volume: desperately loud.

“Allahu Akbar!”

(which means “Allah (God) is great!”)

Women wept. Weak-kneed boys and girls sobbed, held up by a friend in the same way a man with a broken ankle would be.
Family and friends of the dead.

My tears were already shed. Floodgates released at age 16. That evening I walked into the news coverage I watched for 12 years, the scenes which had once broken my own ability to stand. I was well-trained for the moment which drank me up that fated March Wednesday.

Glug glug glug drank up I was. I prayed. I watched. I slid through the tense multitude to get a better look at this and that. I prayed for kids I saw. I prayed and engaged with the crumbling women, the youth staggering into the ER screaming, “I’m not going to let this go! I’m going to do something to get back at them for this!”, the friends of mine I bumbled into that night (it seemed a large portion of Bethlehem was there), the ones who collapsed under the agony of sadness and were toted into the ER swollen with families, the speechless bystanders. I prayed and engaged with this little city of David, Bethlehem:
birthplace of
the Only One
who could ever turn
this tide of grief, revenge, and consummate oppression.

There is an oft-quoted verse in the book of Esther which says more about why I was at the hospital that dark night:
“And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:14

After leaving the hospital, David and I filled a previous commitment to visit a family in the camp: the father in the family “happened”  to be the Minister of Labor in Bethlehem. Then we went to get the wooden cross and visit the woodworker’s family. Everyone was in a hubbub over the night’s events; and there we were, the hospital’s clamor still affecting our heartbeats; and our heartbeats still affecting the hospital’s clamor: our peace a holy residue of promise and hope.

for such a time as this.

for murder scenes and war zones, troubled neighborhoods and troubled neighbors,

for places in deep need, for people longing for hope,

for nations, for cities, for individuals,

for such a time as this.

We must not be afraid, but confident. We must not be afraid of “darkness”, but confident in who we are:

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. The answer to the problem. The peace to the chaos. The hope to the hopeless.

We should rejoice when we get the privilege of being all these things,

whether at a crime scene in Bethlehem or a parking lot at the mall. Light belongs in darkness.

“This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you,

that God is Light,

and in Him there is no darkness at all.”

John 1:5

You are the light of the world.

A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.

Instead they put it on its stand,

and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

Matthew 5:14-15

the river rushes to the lowest place

I usually say I don’t believe in bad days, and I don’t – in that everyday with God is still guaranteed to be moving from glory to glory (even when I don’t observe that with my eyes); it is at its core, a GOOD day. However, rough spots happen. Personally, I’m terrifically exasperated and looking for resolution in the midst of it. I’m living in the divine tension of resting in knowing God is moving on my behalf, and also doing the part I am responsible for. I’m stir crazy and yet, I simply want to be still. I want to go somewhere wonderfully intoxicating like the Amazon and yet I want to simply be in Redding and drink the luscious stars in the night sky. I want to see whole cities engulfed by love and I want the homeless guy I passed today on the street to be engulfed too. In all that I am waiting for several major things to take flight. Like a housecat who sits at the door calmly waiting to be let in, and moments later is digging her claws deep into the door in frustration and eagerness – I am torn between patience and impatience.

These times are an opportunity to let love lead, not emotions, not circumstances, but the forever FULL love of God. For me they are a time to practice the fine art of rejoicing when I don’t feel like it. One’s soul, the seat of one’s emotions, is subject to one’s spirit, the part of you seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6) and thus innocuous to one’s atmosphere. God turns even exasperation into joy. Sometimes it’s merely about getting alone with Him in quiet, laying down, and chatting with Him – not for answers, but just to chat. It’s like having a conversation with a good friend – you don’t only talk when you “need” answers, you talk to get to know the person and to be known by her.

If you are in the exasperation zone, I declare NEWNESS to you today. Today is a day when mountains will move, peace will come, and HOPE will rise. God wants to meet with you. He wants to talk with you. He wants to share His heart with you. He LOVES you and accepts you fully. He champions your dreams. He is your GOOD Father.

PIONEER (song by Rick Pino)

I heard this song for the first time yesterday and it was like eating Ritz crackers as a six year old with a tummy ache:
calming, strengthening, and reassuring.

And so to all who are called to blaze new trails through thick terrain, take heart. The reason your journey is irresistible is YOU WERE BORN FOR THIS. The world needs you to take your place in history and in the future.

You can do it! And with great glory, you will. The world awaits the revealing of the sons and daughters of God.

As a friend recently wrote,

“Cynicism is the language of cowards – always think the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.

It takes courage to have hope.”

And as the psalmist wrote, “I would have despaired, but I know I will see God’s goodness here on earth” (Psalm 27:13)

HAVE HOPE!!!!!!!!!

Jesus is the HOPE of the nations. How can we not have hope when the embodiment of hope lives inside us?

Make that new path. Pave that road. Believe change is possible. Believe Jesus. Generations to come will be grateful you did.

A Brave New World starts with the first step

"A Brave New World"

I have been thinking a lot lately about bravery and doing what has never been done. Amelia Earhart is one of my heroes. I once saw her in a vision in which she looked intently in my eyes and said, “No one understands what I am doing.” Then she hopped in her plane and flew away. That moment was pivotal for me. I knew what she meant. I imagined the flak she received for her “foolish” confidence and her grandiose vision. I thought of the eye-rolls she must have endured when sharing her dreams. Yet, she knew there was more in her breakthrough than herself – there was a future full of millions of people. She made a way through flight. Now, most people think little of flying – and thousands of people do it daily. In some sense, Amelia saw this. From far off, from eighty years ago, she SAW it. She knew she was blazing a new trail that would soon become well-traveled. Her “unthinkable” dream, has become our norm.

And so it shall be for peace and flourishing in the Middle East.

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”
Amelia Earhart

(I painted the above painting in worship at BSSM one lovely March day this year. It’s called, “A Brave New World.”)