When stakes are high, opinions differ, and emotions run strong, that’s what we call a tough or crucial conversation. None of us have ever been in this situation, right?! *anxious laugh*
That’s exactly why the Copywriting Team at Helen + Gertrude recently read Crucial Conversations, and the leadership team did a training titled “Making Tough Conversations Easy(er).”
Our Copywriting Team is all about the feels, discussing the content, and helping each other apply it to real-life scenarios inside—and outside of work. So we read it book-club style, meeting in coffee shops around Rochester each month. As writers, we, of course, had to name our sessions and landed on the straightforward yet alliterative, Copywriters in Cafés.
We’d bring an update on what we were talking about to each All Hands meeting so everyone could benefit from the big-picture insights. All Hands is the monthly meeting where the entire agency gets together to go over executive, marketing, financial, and department stuff.
The Tough Conversations training was done with our super knowledgeable, experienced HR Works rep Robyn Walsh. Not only did we learn from her, but we also learned from each other, sharing some of our own tips to use when approaching difficult or uncomfortable dialogue.
Now that we’ve studied how to have productive conversations that produce healthy results—both internally with our teams and externally with our clients and vendors— Helen + Gertrude wants to share five ways to make these hard talks easier.
“For me, a key takeaway was how important it is to address conflicts as soon as possible. When conflict arises, it's easy to drag your feet on following up or to sweep it under the rug as a one-time thing. But the presentation shed some new light on the bigger impact of delaying addressing areas of conflict.
By addressing conflicts immediately, before they grow into larger pain points, you're potentially saving your team from bigger issues down the line, and you're fostering an atmosphere of timely feedback and communication. Also, since it's so fresh, you have a specific, concrete example to reference, and the details are fresh in your mind.”
—Tegan Jenner, Media + Insights Lead
Take it from the famous-for-a-reason RuPaul, "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?" The same goes for being aware of our patterns and responses when conversations go south. We’re each wired differently and therefore have different filters created by our unique experiences. We recommend taking the Crucial Conversations' Style Under Stress Test. It'll tell you how often you move toward silence or violence:
Moving toward silence comes in the forms of:
Examples: sarcasm, sugarcoating
Example: we talk but only sometimes address real issues
Examples: leave the room
Moving toward violence comes in the forms of:
Examples: forcing your views on others, dominating the convo, cutting others off, overstating your facts, speaking in absolutes
Example: “Your ideas are so old-school. Any person with a brain would follow my plan.”
Examples: belittling, making threats
Why does this matter? Because silence and verbal violence are the two extremes on a communication spectrum, both of which can shut down dialogue, weaken your relationships, and hinder results.
“How you start a conversation is everything! Even if your intention is completely pure, if you fail to communicate this to the other person at the outset, it’s all for naught.
You have to be completely clear about why you’re initiating the conversation because if there’s a misunderstanding about your goals, this makes constructive communication much harder. Most people go into conversations with the best intentions, but being able to explain these intentions clearly and honestly is half the battle.”
—Matt Kirsch, Senior Copywriter
You might be the type of person to put that much-needed conversation off or brush it off, but let me tell you, that actually makes you sick, not just mentally, but physically too! Your immune system weakens, and your rate of survival lowers. The more negative feelings we hold in and the less we express ourselves, well, it slowly kills us.1
When someone says something you disagree with, two things happen. 1., Two glands on top of your kidneys shoot adrenaline into your bloodstream. 2., Your brain moves blood away from activities it deems non-essential and instead to things like physical fights or flights (running away).
So areas of the body like the large muscles of the arms and legs get more blood and the higher-level reasoning sections of the brain get less blood. Our biologies literally put us on the defense right away instead of putting us on the path to intelligent persuasion and gentle attentiveness.2
But if you are aware of this science, you can be better equipped for a tough convo. You'll start to see them less as a fight between polar opposites and more as an opportunity to find a higher ground. Rather than a compromise or happy medium, we call this the “apex.” Genuine dialogue rises above it all and creates something new between two sides, like the apex of a triangle.
“The importance of how you open the conversation and how you respond was a big point for me. Using 'I' statements (instead of 'you') that leave out opinions and feelings and instead stating the facts as you understand them without assumptions about the reason behind the behavior. Then, ask clarifying questions until you understand the whole picture before discussing solutions.
Ultimately, this encourages a healthy conversation that builds trust and vulnerability as you work together to find a resolution. It also removes blame from the conversation, which is counterproductive and can lead to hostility.”
—Amy Sadler, Creative Services Lead, Production
Before you meet, gather any documentation or notes for your talking points. Clearly define the purpose of the meeting to the other person. And follow the STATE steps:
“My learning was how important it is to be intentional and strategic during these conversations. So often, we go into them and kind of just ‘see what happens’ without a plan, which is when emotions can take charge and you can end up with an outcome you're not happy with. So it made me just want to take note of when a conversation will be ‘crucial’ and then make sure I'm being extra thoughtful.”
—Sammy Boyd, Copywriter
If things are starting to get spicy (in a not-so-great way), step out with one of these techniques to make it safe again.
“It's hard to be self-aware of your communication when you're under a lot of stress and the stakes are high. We learned that responses on the team can vary based on situations and context! How it’s delivered makes a difference, plus, whether the person is in a safe place and has good intentions. Feedback feels genuine when someone has your best interest at heart.”
—Claire O’Reilly, Copywriter
This last one is short and sweet. People usually only remember the beginning and end of conversations. Acknowledge and show gratitude for what they brought to the dialogue. End it on a positive note!
“I really liked establishing an agenda before the meeting so whoever you’re talking to isn’t caught off guard and has time to emotionally adjust. And then following up at the end of the meeting with notes and next steps.”
—Becca Bellush, Account Director
When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short-term discomfort for long-term dysfunction. If you haven’t had enough convincing to take on that tough convo, think about the question: “Do I care enough about this person to feel awkward (for a short amount of time) if it means we'll develop a more genuine relationship for years to come?” For our Helen + Gertrude coworkers, clients, and partners, the answer is almost always a resounding “YES!” And that will help you deliver what you need to say in the kindest way.
Want to know more? These 5 tips are grounded in our human-centered design approach, where we place high importance on growth from the beginning of the process—starting with our people. Fortunately, we’ve seen it time and time again, a healthy culture leads to purposeful work and better results. And while these two trainings were amazing, I know they will not be our last!
1. Ornish, Love and Survival: The Healing Power of Intimacy, 54-56.
2. Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzer, Crucial Conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 4.