To set the stage for a productive discussion, open a difficult conversation with the Third Story, advise the authors of Difficult Conversations. The Third Story is one an impartial observer, such as a mediator, would tell; it’s a version of events both sides can agree on.
“The key is learning to describe the gap – or difference – between your story and the other person’s story. Whatever else you may think and feel, you can at least agree that you and the other person see things differently,” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen write.
Say two regional sales reps share responsibility for sending weekly updates to their manager. Brad always submits them on time, but Frank often turns them in late.
Saying, “Frank, you’ve turned in sales reports late again” would only put Frank on the defensive. Instead, Brad opens the conversation this way: “Frank, you and I place a different value on deadlines. I want to explain why meeting them is important to me, and then I’d like to hear your take on them.”
Brad learns that Frank, when faced with the choice of possibly making a sale or compiling a report, thinks he should focus on the sale. With this insight, Brad proposes another way to share responsibilities: Brad will complete the report when it’s Frank’s turn to do so, as long as Frank gives Brad two hours’ notice and a share in any commission Frank earns as a result of being able to continue pursuing a lead.
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