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How to Build Trust During Difficult Conversations at Work
3 Methods Used in Sensitive Topic Market Research

By Tom Neveril. Published on March 9, 2020.

Have you ever had a boss or client unexpectedly grow the scope of your work, without acknowledging that you should be paid more? A “scope creep” situation like that requires a difficult conversation, --the kind of conversation that 70% of US employees say they routinely avoid.

I’m not a lawyer or an HR expert, but my job as a market researcher often requires navigating difficult conversations, persuading people to talk about things that might be divisive or “sensitive.”

So when that scope creep scenario happened to me a few months ago, I intentionally handled the conversation with some techniques that I’d used a few weeks earlier, while moderating focus groups on a sensitive topic.

In that project, I had to persuade male long-distance runners to physically examine prototype running shorts and talk about how they might fit. I had to ask questions like, “Do you feel like the fabric of these prototype shorts might chafe your scrotum while running? Why or why not?”

The common denominator between sensitive topic research and difficult work conversations is the importance of building trust.

In both types of conversations, people without a personal relationship are hesitant to reveal intimate thoughts or conflicting views. And in both conversations, there’s a fear that the content or outcomes might be used for selfish reasons.

So, next time you’re presented with a situation that requires a difficult conversation, here are a few steps you can take to build trust during the experience:

1. Acknowledge Awkwardness

It’s a universal truth: everyone hates unpleasant surprises.

If you expect a workplace conversation to be difficult, it’s important to communicate this expectation with the other party. So, when the time comes to have the conversation, all parties need to feel that they’ve had a chance to prepare for the awkwardness.

For example, in the beginning of the focus groups with male runners, I introduced the topic and explained that their role was to share their honest opinions. I added that it was important to be candid “about the kinds of issues that you don’t normally talk about with strangers, like underwear comfort while exercising.” This effectively hinted at awkwardness ahead while avoiding getting into details too soon.

Sometimes providing an example for an expected moment of tension can actually reduce its potency.

For example, in a situation where you might be seeking to negotiate a pay raise, you might say to your supervisor, “I’m looking to understand if I’ve met the requirements for a ‘yes.’ But if I haven’t met them, then I will expect a ‘No.’” When the other party sees that you’re fully capable of accepting a potentially embarrassing moment ahead, it gives them more confidence that the issue can be resolved.

One more note on this technique: You may need to acknowledge awkwardness as you move forward through the conversation.

For example, during a personal dispute discussion, you might hear that other party struggles with managing a health issue at the office. Take a moment to empathize with them. Acknowledging awkwardness builds trust by demonstrating respect for feelings and manners.

2. Connect the Resolution to Helping Customers

When a difficult conversation is perceived as a zero-sum game, it’s more likely that someone is going to avoid or quit the conversation. On the other hand, when both people agree on who or what should benefit from the resolution, they’ll be motivated to plow ahead.

In sensitive topic research, I always attempt to earn the trust of strangers by providing a motivation that everyone will respect. Specifically, after I’ve introduced the potential points of tension and requested participant candor, I always follow that with the same justification: “the purpose of this conversation is to help my clients better serve real people like you.”

In general, people are more willing to endure a bit of awkwardness if it means they can feel useful to strangers. Altruism is a powerful motivator.

So, when preparing for a difficult workplace conversation, consider how the current situation may impact the customers’ experience. For example, when giving a critical performance review, emphasize how your colleague’s performance ultimately has an impact on customer satisfaction, loyalty, etc.

When another party sees that you’re concerned about serving strangers, they can’t help but respect it. It’s not only ethical, but it’s also a wise business practice. This is why connecting a resolution to helping customers builds trust during difficult conversations.

3. Be Authentically Human, Not Lawyerly

Conventional wisdom often advises us to resolve conflicts by acting like unemotional, polished litigators. Unfortunately, when the other party senses that you’re acting during a difficult conversation, they will do the same.

The reciprocity principle suggests that in many social situations we pay back what we receive from others —good or bad. Whether I’m researching a sensitive topic or negotiating a difficult conversation with colleagues, I lean on the reciprocity principle to encourage authentically human interaction.

Here are 3 specific ways:

Be as Present as Possible: Have the conversation in person, because nothing is more valuable than our focused time and attention. When another party sees that you are present and totally engaged, they will respond in kind. Cardinal rule: Never attempt difficult conversations over text message, email or social media.

Be Yourself: Acting naturally leads to deeper, more candid communication. Personal authenticity suggests that you believe the conversation is happening in a safe space and that you have nothing to hide.  

Showing emotion is fine as long as it doesn’t interrupt forward progress in the conversation. If you’re feeling such strong emotion (anger or sadness) that you cannot stay on point, don’t repress. Ask to take a short break.

Use Storytelling: Stories have a unique ability to open minds. When people hear about another person’s life lesson, testimonial or case study, their guard comes down as their imagination recreates the story. In difficult conversations, asking for and sharing stories helps each party demonstrate empathy and improves understanding of each perspective.

Ultimately, when you are authentically human, you build trust by respecting everyone’s unique personalities and experiences.

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Please share your comments or connect with me: @tomneveril or tom@storybrandconsulting.com Thank you.