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Tough Conversations—Know When to Push, and When to Stop

Categories: Tough Conversations

In this series, I’m discussing the importance of having tough conversations with clients when warranted, and describing a few of the dynamics in play when this happens. Because it’s unusual to intentionally take clients to the higher end of the Discomfort Continuum that I described in my last two posts, it is likely to be difficult and stressful for us as well. As change practitioners, when we fail to address important but difficult-to-discuss issues with clients, it’s almost always because we weren’t prepared to deal with our own emotions.

We need to be ready to escalate the client’s discomfort (and therefore our own) when it’s required. However, this necessitates a particularly high level of mental and emotional preparation on our part. If we are more uncomfortable than the client, it will be difficult for us to maintain the level of equilibrium required to achieve what we need to in the interaction. Conversely, if we become numb and uncaring when others are uncomfortable (i.e., staying too far below them on the continuum) it may be a sign that we lack sufficient emotional connection and empathy.

From my own experience, I can say that deliberately raising a client’s level of emotion and discomfort is almost always an uncomfortable ordeal for me as well. Although I’m willing to do so if it’s in my client’s best interest, I’ve never found it to be something I look forward to. In fact, I have to be careful not to find excuses to put off difficult exchanges longer than I should because of my own uneasiness about engaging the client.

What I find helpful is to apply the Discomfort Continuum to myself whenever I’m using it to help calibrate where my client is. This means there are two key questions for me to address: Where on the Continuum am I taking my client, and where am I as I attempt to get him or her there?

My personal goal is to stay at a level at least a couple of points below the discomfort level of my client. For instance, if I’ve decided to intentionally take a client to 6 or 7, then, ideally, I would remain at about a 4 or a 5 in the interaction. If, during those rare occurrences when I try to orchestrate a client to level 8 or 9, I aspire to be at 6 or 7 (or less). Whatever the level of discomfort involved at any one time, the key is for me to be less stressed than my client. If not, I run the risk of losing perspective and personalizing or over-reacting to things being said instead of remaining objective and focused on what’s in their best interest.

Stay confident and centered during a tough conversation.

As practitioners, when we are conscious of what we are doing, and can manage our own discomfort and operate from a self-assured, focused position, we increase our effectiveness in two ways. First, we can more objectively choose our words and actions for maximum results. Second, we can appear less personally threatening, enabling the other person to better manage his or her own discomfort. Therefore, to apply the Discomfort Continuum effectively, we need to bring a mindset to the table that includes the following elements:

  • Focus on practicing the craft—We need to remain aware that our behavior must always be in service to the client’s realization. This means we should stay centered on serving the sponsor’s intent regardless of where we are personally on the continuum as we work with others. If we believe that practicing the craft is the highest form of client service, and something else (such as our own reluctance to deal with uncomfortable client exchanges) makes us hesitant to apply the required levels of explicitness and intensity, then we should question whether we truly have the client’s best interest as our priority.
  • Clarity of purpose—Any time we are preparing to move into a conversation that may push people up the continuum, we should ensure we have a clear, specific outcome in mind that is appropriate to the situation. If we are going into an exchange, for instance, to intentionally provoke the person to an uncomfortable zone, we need to know why, how far to take it, and exactly what we hope to accomplish.
  • Empowerment—A client/practitioner relationship that includes periodic advancing up the Discomfort Continuum requires a tremendous amount of mutual trust. Both people must be confident that they share common outcome goals and are highly interdependent in accomplishing this desired state. Only in these circumstances will they be able to influence each other’s thinking to the degree needed for the intended outcome.
  • ContractingThe chance that escalating explicitness and intensity to the point that discomfort might happen is something that should be discussed with clients when first establishing expectations about working together. If a client is unwilling to enter into a relationship that includes this possibility, you need to know early so you can determine whether such a restriction would prevent the project from reaching realization of the intended results.
  • Mindfulness—We need to bring the full measure of our intentionality to bear. We should be completely present to the other person (with minimal distractions), as well as acutely aware of our own thoughts and emotions. We should remain physically, mentally, and emotionally centered; in the moment, attentive; neither aggressive nor timid; and bringing our best game to the table.
  • Awareness of risk—Particularly in situations where we take someone to a high level of discomfort to address a critical issue, there is always a risk that:

-   The situation will get out of hand and more emotional reactions will arise than were anticipated or helpful, and/or

-   The client’s tolerance for discomfort may exceed what you anticipated and he or she may become unwilling to continue the discussion.

In either case, the client/practitioner relationship can be put at risk, requiring a healing period before trust is rebuilt. Even worse, an insurmountable breach can occur that could end the rapport altogether. These are not reasons for holding back what needs to be said, including the explicitness and intensity that is called for. In fact, this level of honesty is what we are obligated to if we are to truly be in service to our clients and devoted to practicing the craft as it should be. What I’m saying is that it is critical to recognize the potential risks in each situation and weigh them against the potential gains.

  • Surrender—Once we have made up our minds that an issue is important enough to enter the emotional/discomfort escalation process, we must be prepared to go to the appropriate level to achieve the intended purpose. With clear focus, confidence, and mindfulness, we need to release our attachment to the outcome of the situation, recognizing that if we bring our best game, whatever happens will be in the best interest of all concerned.

Know when to push.

A professional change facilitator’s intention should be to go only as far up the continuum as necessary to address whatever issue is at hand. I typically begin at a low level and work my way up. As examples, here are a few signs that it may be time to increase levels of explicitness and/or intensity:

  • Previous levels of explicitness and intensity within the comfort zone (from 0 to 5) are not working.
  • The client is resisting, blocking decisions, cycling, and/or is stuck. You are repeating the same discussion and getting nowhere.

You recognize that your own reluctance to engage at a higher level on the continuum is preventing the needed escalation.

Know when to stop.

Many consultants stop too early and fail to move to the needed level of explicitness and intensity because they become distressed with their own discomfort. If an issue is important enough to engage the escalation process, you should be prepared to keep going as long as there is still more to accomplish and you feel the client has a tolerance to maintain the kind of interaction you are engaged in. However, you also need to be able to recognize when it’s time to stop. There are three signs to watch out for:

  • You are not making sufficient progress and there are no new issues or dynamics to explore.
  • You or the client are crossing the dysfunction threshold (10). You get diminishing returns at that point and you and/or the client begin to engage in destructive behavior.
  • You have accomplished some degree of what you intended, and now need to consolidate your gains and exit the situation.

If it is necessary to stop short of your intended goal, you should attempt to leave the client in a place where his or her thinking has been jogged. However, the client should be able to “save face” and possibly have further candid dialogue about the issue in the future (i.e., pull back on the explicitness/intensity in such a way that the client doesn’t feel embarrassed or shamed).

Know when to care.

Whether working in the engaged zone, advancing, or pulling back on the Discomfort Continuum, the one constant is that you are always in service to what is in the client’s best interest. “Tough love” is a perspective on helping people achieve what they want when they are somehow inhibiting themselves from accomplishing it. Though it demands uncomfortable exchanges, the basis for doing so is a deep caring for the other person. To be ethical, professional, and effective when increasing explicitness and intensity, it must be done with respect and by putting what’s best for the other person ahead of your own comfort and security…this can only take place if you truly care for the client.

Are you ready to “go there”?

We, and our clients, continually move up and down the continuum of discomfort in our daily interactions. Much of the time, both parties stay in the engaged zone, with occasional ventures across the discomfort threshold. When relationships are strong, many issues can be addressed in this range without either party moving into significant discomfort. Moreover, ongoing work in the “sweet spot” zone builds a level of trust that enables greater and greater candor without undue discomfort. However, there are times when we must help clients confront issues that are blocking realization of critical objectives. At these times, we need to be prepared to use the appropriate tools—explicitness and intensity—to address the issue with them, and be ready to work at a level that is uncomfortable for everyone involved (us included). Only by being ready to engage whatever level of uneasiness is called for can we provide the full measure of value we are capable of delivering.

Go to the beginning of the series

Posted on: November 08, 2011 04:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

How to Measure the Discomfort Level of a Tough Conversation

Categories: Tough Conversations

In my last post, I described a Discomfort Continuum that I use as a guide when I’m planning for or engaged in tough client conversations. There are various ways to determine where clients are on the continuum. A table, available for download here, describes levels of discomfort, and specific behaviors at each level.

One reason for a practitioner to have a tough conversation with a client is to help him or her get past being reluctant to confront issues that could put the client’s initiatives at risk. Two levers can be used to increase another person’s level of attention to an issue: explicitness and intensity. Used separately or in combination, these levers have the effect of advancing the other person’s awareness. Unfortunately, an acceleration of discomfort usually comes along with this positive result. Let’s look more closely at these two mechanisms.

Increasing Explicitness

In most forms of client dialogue, change practitioners rely on shared understanding and implicit conversational norms to convey much of their meaning. For instance, if you were slightly apprehensive (but not overly concerned) about the outcome of a recent meeting where a sponsor wasn’t prepared, you might simply say, “It looked like you weren’t as ready for their questions as you usually are” and leave it at that. Being somewhat indirect like this allows room for the person to infer what you meant. You expect that your feedback will be taken into account in his or her next performance.

This approach may be sufficient to raise the sponsor’s awareness but, if not, it isn’t a big deal because there wasn’t much at stake during the meeting. However, if the lack of preparation caused serious problems, it would be important to ensure your impression of the outcome was fully conveyed to the sponsor. This could be accomplished by increasing the level of explicitness (clarity and detail) in your feedback if your first (more mild) effort didn’t seem to have the needed impact (e.g., “You came across as if you didn’t care enough about their issues to do your homework and I’m concerned that you lost some of their trust”).

The more serious the implications, the more important it is to fill in gaps, vividly state facts, be emphatic about conclusions, etc. so there is no misunderstanding of what you are saying. The purpose here isn’t to be harsh for its own sake; it is to be precise in proportion to the gravity of the consequences. When a client’s actions could jeopardize the success of a vital change initiative, it’s important to reduce the amount of work required for him or her to draw the proper conclusions, and fully understand the ramifications of what you are saying. This can only be done by communicating more explicitly.

Increasing Intensity

Ordinary conversation includes a spectrum of emotional expression. This is conveyed by our tone of voice, body language, volume of speech, and other indicators. In situations where we feel very strongly about a particular issue, the perceived passion, or “emotional charge,” of our speech usually increases. Volume, eye contact, hand gestures, physical motion, the angle of our body, our physical closeness to the other person…all can be used to increase the intensity of our communication. The specific cues vary. One person may display intensity with concentrated, measured speech and a high degree of physical focus. Another may express it with agitated motion, raised voice, and emotionally loaded words. Both are attempts to convey the importance of what they are communicating.

Explicitness and Intensity in Context

Although we can describe a range of explicitness and intensity, it’s difficult to specify the exact amount of each that should be applied to create a particular result. There are an almost unlimited number of variables that could contribute to the proper mix, so I tend to consider only those factors with the highest impact. This has led to three elements that, for me, are the most influential to how people perceive conversations: the speaker, the receiver, and the situation.

  • Speakers vary in their “typical” levels of explicitness and intensity. A speaker who is normally fairly calm and soft-spoken may create a very different impression by raising his or her voice only slightly than will a speaker who is often loud and dramatic.
  • Receivers vary in their sensitivity to explicitness and intensity. A receiver who is accustomed to very frank and emotional discussions may feel little discomfort when hearing something stated unambiguously. That same statement might create substantial discomfort in other people.
  • Situational norms define what people perceive as appropriate levels of explicitness and intensity. An extremely candid, intense verbal exchange would create a very different impression if it were between parishioners in the middle of a church service, rather than among spectators at a football game.

I find it’s important to be aware of each of these elements and use them appropriately to calibrate my words and actions when accelerating my explicitness and/or intensity.

Next, I’ll talk about how to prepare for—and have—a tough conversation.

Go to the beginning of the series

Posted on: November 01, 2011 01:38 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

You Can Measure the “Toughness” of a Conversation

Categories: Tough Conversations

In my last post, I said that it’s sometimes necessary to have uncomfortable conversations with clients in order to keep the change initiative on track toward realization. But how much uneasiness is enough? How much is too much?

The level of discomfort our clients may feel at any one time can range from fairly low to extremely high and even potentially dysfunctional. The graphic below illustrates the discomfort range a client might experience during a conversation. It can be used to gauge not only where a person is now but what level of distress a practitioner might want to deliberately generate in order to break through whatever has been keeping a client from recognizing and dealing with an important change-related issue.


As awkward as it is, there are some circumstances when change practitioners should intentionally create uneasiness in their clients to help foster realization. Deliberate movement from left to right on the Discomfort Continuum is accomplished by applying greater degrees of explicitness and intensity in the conversation. (I will describe both terms in more detail in the next post.)

The zero point represents a relatively neutral emotional state. As explicitness and/or intensity increase, the strength of the client’s discomfort—and the corresponding tendency to fight or flee—continues to rise. People at the zero level don’t experience much agitation or strain in an exchange. Below this point, their attention isn’t even on the conversation. They have little to no investment in what is being said. Above zero, they become engaged and actively participate. The client’s level of involvement rises as they move to the right on the continuum.

While in the range of 1 to 5, a practitioner can increase explicitness and intensity without generating much uneasiness. Starting at 5, clients begin to feel noticeable discomfort as their emotions become stronger. When a practitioner takes a client to this level, he or she is clearly probing beyond the person’s “safety threshold.” (This is the place where the person normally lets people know they’ve gone far enough and should stop pursuing what has become difficult to discuss.) The expectation is that when clients signal that their safety threshold has been reached, the practitioner is to pull back. When this doesn’t happen and the practitioner continues on, the person may react with some degree of fear, anger, insecurity, regret, sadness, etc. Although provoking these kinds of feelings is not the primary goal, they are typically associated with people addressing struggles that they’ve been avoiding, so it is not unusual for them to surface.

Between 5 and 10 on the continuum, although people are uncomfortable, they are usually able to participate in conversations that can yield useful outcomes. That is, the downside of the client’s discomfort can more often than not be justified. This is because it is possible for the client to break through to recognize and take action on the critical issues jeopardizing initiative realization.

At 10, the discomfort usually starts to generate dysfunctional levels of emotion. Above this range, further increases in emotion simply increase the level of defensiveness and entrenchment and generally doesn’t yield further positive results.

Over the years, I’ve come to rely on this continuum as a way to help determine where my clients are emotionally, should I feel it’s necessary to press harder on an issue than I know they are comfortable with. For me, there is a “sweet spot” where the client’s discomfort level is in the range of 4.5 to 5.5. I find that, most of the time, this is where the most solid progress is made. This zone comes with tension, but it offers the prospect of unusually rich dialogue, insight, and results.

Of course, there are times when I want to soften the conversation, moving the client’s discomfort level below the sweet spot. This series, however, is about those situations when it’s in the client’s best interest to sharpen the conversation (i.e., be more emphatic about the points I’m trying to get across). This is when I intentionally move a client up the continuum—sometimes to as high as 7 or 8. I rarely take a client all the way to 10, but it has happened. From my experience, this might take place only two or three times in an entire consulting career. Nonetheless, it’s important to be able and willing to go there if that is what is called for to be fully in service to a client. In fact, that is the basic message of this series of postings. As professional change facilitators, our role isn’t to ensure clients are comfortable; it’s to help them realize their change aspirations…sometimes despite their discomfort.

Next, I’ll talk about how to determine where someone is on the continuum and how to use explicitness and intensity to the client’s advantage.

Go to the beginning of the series

Posted on: October 25, 2011 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to Have a Tough Conversation

Categories: Tough Conversations

You cannot take responsibility for how well another accepts your truth; you can only ensure how well it is communicated. ~Neal Donald Walsch

As change practitioners, we spend a great deal of time learning skills that help us facilitate discussions, guide conversations, and manage relationships with our clients. We hope things go smoothly and that both we and the client have relatively comfortable interactions as the change process unfolds. For the most part, we prefer to avoid any tough, unsettling discussions.

There are times however, when we find ourselves in situations where keeping everything smooth won’t yield the results we need. Sometimes we have to go into a zone that is uncomfortable for the other person. There is no other way, if we want to serve our client and create the value we agreed to provide.

When this happens, it’s important to have a game plan, a process to help navigate the difficult waters. I’ve found that many change practitioners, however, don’t have a contingency plan for tough conversations (other than to avoid them as much as possible). As a result, they are surprised when they find themselves in one and often over-react by coming on too strong or under-react by back-peddling as quickly as possible. Neither is acceptable when facilitating major change.

While there is no single path to follow when it comes to engaging tough conversations with people, there are some excellent resources available. One I think is particularly good is Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler. It contains excellent frameworks that can help us prepare for and engage in those exchanges we wish weren’t necessary.

Even such well-structured advice, however, can’t provide all the answers. We each have to find our own way. An important part of this is passing along to each other our experience with tough client conversations—what works and what doesn’t. It’s critical that we share what we’ve learned so there is an informed, collective view regarding how to conduct challenging client dialogue. This way, we can all draw from the same reservoir as we carve out our separate preferred approaches.

What follows in this and three more postings is a description of some of my lessons learned when dealing with particularly arduous client discussions. Tough conversations have many aspects to them. I’ll focus on those times when I feel it is important to become intentionally provocative in order to advance the client toward his or her desired outcome. I’ll also offer a continuum of emotional comfort/discomfort that outlines the role explicitness and intensity play in these kinds of exchanges. Last, I’ll share some guidelines for intentionally escalating the level of discomfort in a conversation in order to achieve a specific intended result.

I hope what I share can be useful either when planning difficult client conversations or analyzing them after the fact. I invite you to share your experience as well.

How uncomfortable should it be?

Often in our work, we must raise a client’s awareness about certain topics. Sometimes, this calls for reframing how the client sees something, in order to unblock the path to realization. Much of the time, these exchanges are easy: You present an issue that the client hasn’t recognized before; he or she sees your point and concurs with your suggested next move.

Of course, sometimes you have to try several times before you can get through to the client. With conviction and persistence, however, you usually are able to penetrate their confusion or defenses to help them see and act on what you think is their best course of action.

The challenge comes when normal exchanges or even tenacious efforts don’t yield results, and either:

  • The client can’t seem to recognize the issue you are trying to raise, or
  • The client sees the issue you are raising, but won’t act on it.

At this point, it’s time to determine whether the dynamics at hand are important enough to escalate the tension by becoming more provocative (to intentionally push the client past his or her comfort zone) or you should let things remain as they are. This decision to become more challenging could go one of two ways:

  • It could serve as a catalyst to help the client face critical issues, or
  • It could raise his or her discomfort level so much that it threatens your working relationship.

When you are at this point, consider your next step carefully. Although being more confrontational is risky, failure to do so might keep the client from addressing something that could jeopardize the project’s success. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, “Can I truly stay dedicated to the client’s best interest without intentionally prodding him or her past where either of us would prefer to go?”

What circumstances would necessitate a tough conversation? This is another of those junctures where each change practitioner has to find his or her own answer. Speaking for myself, I’ll say that if I’m not consciously engaging clients in uncomfortable conversation at least some of the time, it’s likely that I’m opting for pleasantries and financial security over doing my job.

Being a professional facilitator of major organizational change requires a wide range of communication styles. Some are informative; others are more supportive and nurturing; still others require pushing the edge and even exceeding what clients are used to and comfortable with. As professionals, we are there to guide the change process and ensure they make informed decisions along the way. We can’t fulfill this obligation unless we are skilled at and willing to apply all communication styles, including those that are seen as bold, to the point of sometimes being unpleasant for clients to experience.

Next: Measure the “Toughness” of a Conversation

Posted on: October 18, 2011 12:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.

- Elbert Hubbard



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