Author Holly Weeks Talks Communication

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Holly Weeks

Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them (Harvard Business Press, 2008) knows a thing or two about communication. Not only is she a consultant on the subject, but she also teaches it. e-BIM talks to Weeks about this critical skill and how we can all communicate a little better in the workplace.

What motivated you to write on this topic?

Everyone’s life, including mine, would be easier if we were all better at this. This is not the kind of thing I want to be better at than other people—I want everyone to be highly skilled at handling tough conversations well. Over and over I have seen problems that could have—and should have—worked out, but didn’t because important conversations broke down or turned toxic. The tough problems that were the subject of the conversation were not themselves beyond repair, but the resulting damaging judgments, hurt reputations and broken relationships sometimes have been.

Why do you think people get so stressed when they have to have conversations with their superiors?

When we’re in a difficult conversation with someone who has more power than we do, we understandably feel threatened—we have a lot to lose. Our counterpart, or the fallout from an unsuccessful conversation, can hurt us. If we have a warfare model of difficult conversation, we tend to think there will be a winner and a loser—and it doesn’t look good for us.

What is the best way to have a conversation with a workplace bully?

Bullying, if it’s going to work, is utterly dependent on your reactions and has to keep you off balance. If you back off, then a bully’s distortions and threats succeed. If you counterattack, you teach your counterpart that she can wind you up and get a big reaction. But a bullying ploy only carries weight if you are vulnerable to it. And, unilaterally, you can immunize against your own vulnerabilities. Where are you exposed? What did your counterpart just do and what can you do when that happens? Rather than a defensive or offensive strategy, work on a balanced strategy for protecting yourself.

It’s great if you know you’re supposed to have a difficult conversation with someone in advance—that way you can plan out everything you want to say. What should you do if a difficult conversation is sprung on you?

Actually, planning out everything you want to say has two problems that will come back to haunt you: the tendency to script a monologue and the assumption that careful preparation means you won’t be surprised. But conversations fall apart when there’s a breakdown between what one side intends and what the other side hears, or when neither side can make out what’s happening in the conversation, where it’s headed or why the counterpart’s reactions are so unreasonable. Ahead of time, you want to get the hang of strategy for a conversation in motion: What’s your preferred outcome and preferred working relationship, and what’s interfering with them? In the conversation itself, you want a "What have we got here?" attitude and approach: Think about where you are and where you could move, where the counterpart is and is likely to move, where you want to get and what’s in the way of getting there. In fact, prepping for a tough conversation and handling one that is sprung on you are not very different.

How do you have a conversation with someone who isn’t "playing fair"? For example, if he or she is bringing up personal matters during a work conversation.

We tend to assume that when counterparts aren’t playing fair, they are trying to score off us. But "playing fair" may be in the eye of the beholder. For many, talking personally is not an act of malice, but an effort to empathize or connect, even if we think it’s out of bounds. It’s awkward when we can’t read intentions, of course, but, frankly, we can’t. Instead of assuming the worst, however, and retaliating or falling silent, first assume "innocent offensiveness"—what your counterpart just did bothered you, but was not intended to. Raise the problem using what I call "the blueprint for speaking well in tough moments": clear content, neutral tone and temperate phrasing. Since you’re not sure how to read what just happened, you might say, "When you bring up personal matters while we’re talking about work, I don’t know how to read it." It feels true and sounds true and that will stop most people right there. They can’t score if you make a breach of fair play discussible without escalating.

Even though you're an expert on communication, have you ever made mistakes yourself?

I’m an expert on making mistakes! I’ve made every mistake in the book and pretty much everything that could go wrong already has gone wrong for me. I have given bad news that was very poorly received and faced conversations that escalated emotionally and destructively. And yet, what I call the "delusion of good intentions" has made me certain that I was in the right when the conversation went wrong. I have been blindsided by an attack and retaliated because I was angry. I have thought I could "win" if only I pushed hard enough. I’ve dug in when I couldn’t see a way out. I have felt disrespected when a counterpart embarrassed me. I have been suspicious of a counterpart when I couldn’t tell at all what was happening in a difficult conversation. And I have avoided difficult conversations altogether when I was afraid of how it would go.

What should you do if you realize you’re in the wrong?

If you know how to recover from mistakes, it’s no big deal when you’re in the wrong. The problem is that we resist acknowledging mistakes on the theory that we’re saying, "I’m guilty; you win"—that to acknowledge a mistake is a misplaced kind of deference just when our own self-respect is on the line. But the point is to acknowledge mistakes for the specific purpose of recovering from them. That lets you regain your balance instead of watching your mistakes take over the conversation and sink you into deeper trouble. You might take a page from Fiorello LaGuardia and say, "When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut." That’s a good, simple, neutral acknowledgment—it doesn’t put you one-down.

What are some methods people can use to calm down if they get emotional during a conversation?

First, I assume we have problem emotions in difficult conversations. We wouldn’t think they were tough if we didn’t. Handling a difficult conversation is like CPR—when we need to do it, we are upset, the other person isn’t helping and we’re unsure of the outcome. But we can do both if we have mastered our techniques in advance. We’re good with our brains engaged, even if the conversation is emotionally hot. So, acknowledge where you are emotionally vulnerable (we all do know) and think in advance about how to neutralize your own reactions. That might be the same way you handle yourself when the conversation does not seem difficult to you. If you don’t get angry when your best friend criticizes you, but you do when your supervisor does, imitate with your supervisor the way you act with your friend. You already have the tactic—now move it from your area of strength to your area of weakness. As a back-up, have a hip-pocket phrase that keeps you neutral, like silently reminding yourself, "I have children. I’ve handled tougher situations than this."

If a conversation gets too heated, is it best to leave and finish the conversation later when everyone has cooled down, or should people talk it out until they reach a solution?

On the one hand, finishing later when everyone has cooled down assumes that you and your counterpart have the same cool-down pattern—but some people simply ratchet up and collect ammunition for the second round. It assumes that the right timing, context and setting will be easy to get to. Those can be shaky assumptions. On the other hand, talking it out might dig you in deeper rather than bring you to the light. So you have two choices here, and you want to master both. Good strategy is thinking what we want to do and where we want to go in the conversation, while assuming we’ll face obstacles. If you have acquired good strategy as a skill, you can do it on your feet. But you can also take a break and get time to think. If you do, you don’t have to pretend nothing is wrong. You might say, "This review is important to me, but I have such a strong reaction to what you just said that I want to collect my thoughts and get back to you. Can we schedule another time to talk?" Here, the one hard and fast rule is to set a time-in before you take a time-out.

What is the key to success when you’re communicating?

In difficult conversation, the keys to success are good strategy and tactics for handling the hard parts well; balance between extremes; and self-respect, respect for your counterpart and respect for the problem between you. That means breaking habits of mistaking tough conversations for warfare, getting caught up in emotional reactions and assuming that we know the unpredictable. It’s not always easy, but it’s better.

What is the one piece of advice you hope readers take away after reading your book?

We can handle the toughest conversations well, unilaterally. We can change what we do. We can get a clearer view of what happens in tough conversations—begin to see them unfolding in recognizable and manageable ways. We can develop the skills to make our way through them, even when the conversations are unpredictable, big emotions are in play and our counterpart thinks we’re at war. It’s our best way out of failure-prone conversations with our reputations and relationships intact.

Read the review of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them here.

Interview by Jessica Livingston, editor