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How to Approach Difficult Conversations with Co-workers

By |May 17, 2021

Though I’ve retired from active duty, I’m still a reserve deputy in my local county. Recently, a new assistant chief came into the department and wanted to show the rest of the crew that he had power. So he met with the reserves and talked about 10 different projects he wanted to get off the ground.

If folks weren’t willing to commit 24 hours per month to reserve duty and agree to participate in four events throughout the year, the new assistant chief said he’d pull reservist status, preventing them from working side jobs—which is how these guys make their money.

difficult conversations

Because of this, the assistant chief ended up overcommitting the guys to too many responsibilities, and they ended up having to log 30 or even 40 hours a month. And if they didn’t answer when the assistant chief called, he would pull their work permits.

As a result, I had to have a difficult conversation and negotiate up. Once I was able to get the assistant chief to see eye to eye with me, I had to have another difficult conversation with the rest of the crew. But in the end, I was able to make sure everyone was on the same page, and we’re a much stronger group because of it.

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Here’s how I made it happen.

Using CAVIAAR™ to Negotiate Up During Difficult Conversations

The assistant chief had already pissed me off. By the time I got to the office, I was in a bad mood and had a negative attitude. I knew this wouldn’t help me accomplish what I needed to, so I had to use CAVIAAR™—a technique we teach at Black Swan that stands for curiosity, acceptance, venting, identifying, Accusation Audit™, and remembering.

Before I went into the meeting, I knew I had to stay curious. I also accepted that I would be attacked during the conversation. And because I was in a bad mood, I went into the meeting room early and vented—writing everything I wanted to get off my chest on a whiteboard and erasing it before the meeting kicked off.

When the assistant chief came into the room, I immediately launched into an Accusation Audit: You’re probably going to think I’m crazy. You’ll probably want to pull my commission and kick me out of the office. If you could, you might even want to punch me in the face.

My counterpart quickly interjected: No, no, it’s not like that at all.

I continued anyway: You’re probably going to hate my guts when we’re done. After I finished my Accusation Audit, I summarized everything we talked about to that point and asked a Calibrated Question: Would you be willing to explain your vision to me?

The assistant chief began sharing his vision. Whenever he said something I didn’t agree with, I’d use Labels™ to respond: It sounds like we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, and it seems like there is an underlying problem here. 

The tactic worked. My counterpart responded as such: If I send a good email, no one cares. If I send a bad email, everyone cares.

I wanted to tell him that he sounded childish, but I didn’t. Instead, I continued using Labels: It seems like people are misconstruing the emails to the point that it’s causing problems.

At this moment, I knew my strategy was effective because I heard the two magical words: That’s right! All I want to do is help. 

Once I had that agreement, I followed up with another Calibrated Question: How do you see this playing out? After the assistant chief told me he wanted to work together, I asked a no-oriented questionWould you be opposed to me sharing my vision?—and got down to business. Quickly, we realized we shared the same vision, and that was that.

Using CAVIAAR to Negotiate Down

I took the same approach when talking to the folks who report to me: You’re probably going to hate my guts when I tell you that I support the assistant chief. You’re going to want to leave, you’re going to say it’s not worth it, or you’re going to call me a traitor. You might even think I’m trying to undermine you.

They responded like this: Hey, it’s not like that, captain. We trust you.

I opened the floor to discussion, letting everyone in the room vent what was on their minds, and using Labels and Mirrors™ to uncover more information.  

When they were done, I asked the same no-oriented question: Would you be opposed to me sharing my vision?

It took some time, but I was eventually able to get the entire crew on board. Now, we look forward to our regular meetings because there is no more animosity, name calling, or anger. Everyone is on the same page, and the communities we serve are better off because of it.

Preparing to Use CAVIAAR

Understanding the CAVIAAR methodology is one thing. Being able to use it successfully to navigate difficult conversations is quite another.

To sharpen your skills, enroll in our “High-Performing Negotiator Mindset” online training course. We look forward to helping you sharpen your skills and improve your outcomes!

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