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A “CANDID” Approach to Difficult Conversations

Here’s a conundrum: how do we ever successfully raise difficult subjects with people, when we are all so uniquely programmed to not like hearing them? In other words, how do you tell someone that he or she is doing something stupid, without ever using the word “stupid” in the sentence?

The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy. We must somehow remove the threat stimulus that causes people to resist us, while still getting our message heard and acted on. But instead of doing this, most of us operate under the misconception that we have just two stark choices in this situation:
1. To simply let it all hang out and criticize someone.
2. To avoid directly mentioning the situation at hand, either by letting it slide entirely, sugarcoating it, or resorting to euphemisms.

Both of these approaches spring from the classic deficit-based approach to communications—in other words, you see something wrong and try to correct it. This comes so naturally to most of us that we often don’t think to use a strength-based approach, which focuses on creating benefits for both parties in the transaction.

Instead, why not try an approach that allows you to say exactly what you want to say, in a way that helps motivate and influence the other person? It consists of a formal, structured process that takes the same message you intended to deliver, and phrases it using techniques that help the other person accept your message head-on without getting defensive. Because it makes it easier to be candid with people, we will call it the CANDID approach. Its letters break down into specific steps that you can take, in order, to create a productive dialogue:

• Compartmentalize the message to create a neutral opening
• Ask questions based on the other person’s response
• Normalize the situation
• Discuss the details—factually and neutrally
• Incentivize the outcome
• Disengage from the discussion

This technique breaks a difficult conversation into manageable stages, each of which uses a specific approach. This process helps take the emotional sting out of your messages, so that the conversation will be more cooperative instead of confrontational. Above all, it creates a framework for truly painless dialogues that help both you and the other person get what you want.

Use neutral opening statements. For example:

• Have the other person describe what happened, particularly when something has gone wrong.
• Ask the other person how they are doing, particularly when you notice a change in behavior.
• Make a neutral observation, particularly when you notice negative dynamics between people.
• Use the “I” technique, where you relate things to your own behavior or observations (e.g., “I have done this too” or “I have seen lots of people do this”), particularly when someone has made a mistake.

Ask Questions
Now that you have successfully started a feedback dialogue, acknowledge the other person’s response and then keep asking questions, based on what the person tells you.
The goal here is to be “curious, not furious.” Good questions show interest in the other person, and provide a face-saving way for the other person to acknowledge their behavior in their own words. More important, they often get the other person focused on solving the problem themselves, without getting upset or defensive.

Many difficult conversations revolve around a common theme of wanting someone to stop doing a Bad Thing. So guess what the most effective way is to get the other person to talk about it? By making it not seem like such a Bad Thing. Letting people know that their behavior happens to other people, or even to you—even when their behavior is wrong—moves you and the other person closer to a solution. We call this step “normalizing,” because we are relating their behavior to the norms of others. Normalizing a behavior doesn’t mean that you approve of it; it just means that you understand it and that it is safe to talk about it—which paradoxically is more likely to lead to behavioral change.

Here, we get to the fun part: finally mentioning the behavior that we aren’t happy about. It is important to discuss problem behaviors frankly, but note that this is the fourth and not the first step of the process.

Bring up the issue at hand, as neutrally and factually as possible.

• Make the other person part of the process of solving the issue, using phrases such as “What do you think?”
• Empathize with every response—because feelings are never wrong.

This step speaks to the essence of the CANDID process. You are being candid, and yet at the same time very productive. It is here, when you have laid the proper groundwork, that you can truly tell anyone anything.

This is not the same as agreeing with the other person.  You are talking about facts and only facts at this point. Additionally, you are not telling the other person what to do. You are asking them what to do. You are taking a difficult situation, gift-wrapping it, and handing it to them to solve.

Here, we get to the most important part of the process: giving the other person a benefit for changing, by wording things in their interest and expressing confidence in them. This simple but critical step ultimately determines how successful you will be in reaching the goals of your discussion. Remember: no one ever changes his behavior unless it benefits him in some tangible way. People respond much better when they have an incentive for doing so, whether it is a direct benefit or the avoidance of negative consequences. Either way, by finding and selling these benefits, you provide the means to bring a feedback discussion to a productive and successful close.

An important but often overlooked part of the conversation process is to reinforce a positive working relationship—at the close of a sensitive dialogue—by disengaging from the discussion and shifting back into the normal workday. This step, simply put, is a matter of changing the subject toward other areas—preferably strengths—that are part of the relationship you have with this person. It can be about other work issues, or even last night’s football game, so long as it represents a positive, supportive transition away from the coaching discussion.

By using the CANDID approach, you accomplish three important goals:

1. You turn difficult conversations into a painless process that is more comfortable for you to deliver.
2. You transform your relationships with other people into positive and constructive ones.
3. Most important, you gain the power to create real changes in other people by turning your focus from challenging people to helping them.

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©2009 Richard S. Gallagher.  All rights reserved.
This article was adapted from How to Tell Anyone Anything:  Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, by Richard S. Gallagher, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, 2009.

About the Author(s)

Richard S. Gallagher Richard S. Gallagher is a corporate trainer and public speaker who specializes in workplace culture and communication.  He is the author of Great Customer Connections, What to Say to a Porcupine, and, most recently, How to Tell Anyone Anything:  Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work, from which this article was adapted.