Set the Context for Stressful Conversations

Many of us are passionate about what we do.  We care deeply about our projects, clients, patients or students, and our own success.  This can cause us to feel a high level of frustration when things go wrong.  We feel let down when we think others are not pulling their weight, shortchanged when the schedule is cut, stressed to maintain a profit we did not set, and angry when mistakes are made.  When we get frustrated, the tendency can be to launch into our indignation head on.  This is always at the expense of our relationships.  We tend to forget to set the context at the start of our conversations when we are frustrated or angry.

The purpose of setting the right context is to make sure the other person knows what matters to you.  Explaining your underlying interests goes a long way toward shared understanding.  You have an opportunity to work together to build shared commitment up front by setting the context.  Generally, people on the same team want the same things.  It’s important to remember that what is important to you is distinct from your “position”, which is how you want to go about addressing your areas of concern.

Here is an outline for setting the context for stressful conversations:

  1. Set the context
    1. Choose the right time and place
    2. Say, “What’s important to me is….” or “What I want to happen is….”
  2. Check for alignment
    1. Is this a good time to talk about this?
    2. Is it ok to talk about this?
  3. Say your content/concern/request
    1. Advocate
        1. Use examples
        2. Own your opinions
        3. Be concise
    2. Inquire
        1. What is your perspective?
        2. Check for understanding

Instead of saying, “Why is our design budget so low, we have barely started?  What in the world were they thinking?”  Try, “What’s important to me is that we work together to try to hold our profit margin.  We don’t have much to work with.  What ideas do you have to mitigate this situation?”

Sometimes I have to force myself to take a breath and set the context for my concern before blurting out that concern.  Effective leaders are willing to be open and transparent with their interests, positions, and feelings. Instead of throwing stones, they take responsibility.  They inspire others to do the same.





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