Deal with Resistance using Critical Conversation Skills

If your critical conversation encounters resistance, focus your skills and turn the situation around. Critical conversation skills can defeat resistance in a discussion by teaching you to stay flexible, and to know when to push (and when to stop).

Prevent resistance by staying flexible during critical conversations

Balancing focus and flexibility when you’re faced with resistance during a critical conversation is the name of the game. If you tell someone who’s already being difficult that she has to do something or act a certain way, 999 times out of 1,000, she’ll put her feet in the ground and do exactly the opposite. But just letting the meeting go astray isn’t a good option either.

Think of focus and flexibility as the out-of-bounds line in a soccer match. Players, as long as they follow some general rules, have a lot of flexibility to move one way or the other as long as they stay within bounds. In a critical conversation, make those boundaries clear and then let the other parties know where they have flexibility in the discussion.

Here are two easy ways to show flexibility with boundaries:

  • State what is and isn’t acceptable. Being flexible doesn’t mean you need to let someone walk all over you.

    If someone’s behavior is unacceptable — like abusive language — you may say, “I ask that you treat me as a professional and stop using abusive language. I want to work with you, and I’m flexible with how we proceed, but first we need to both talk to one another with respect.”

  • Set ground rules. If you think boundaries may need to be established during a conversation, set them now, and show flexibility when you set these rules.

    Before the conversation even starts, you may want to say, “I want to propose some ground rules for our conversation, but I would like to first ask if you have any ground rules you want us to both follow.” Some ground rules may be agreeing to stick with an agenda, speaking the truth, staying on time, or using a professional tone throughout the conversation.

Know when to push during a critical conversation

A broad range of problems can rear their ugly heads during critical conversations. If the behavior is interrupting the agenda or any progress forward, you have a couple paths to take. First, you may need to assess whether or not all the parties in the room are willing to work toward a common goal. If not, clarify the process and purpose of the conversation and check for agreement.

Here’s a good way to approach a person who’s starting to show signs of resistance.

“In the beginning of the meeting we agreed to work on finding a solution to why team members aren’t comfortable with the language you use in the break room. Are you still willing to work on this issue together, or do you want to find a different way to resolve the issue?”

If this calm and gentle approach doesn’t work, be a little more direct in finding a solution by giving two options for what to do next. Acknowledge what the person is saying or doing, validate her opinions, and then either deal with the behavior or defer it until later.

  • Acknowledge: Acknowledge the behavior by describing it neutrally. When Mr. Negative makes a comment that the problem isn’t solely his problem but rather the team’s problem, you may say, “You don’t think you’re part of this problem, is that right?

  • Validate: Without casting judgment, let the other individual know that she can have a different opinion than you have. Continuing with the previous example, you could say, “You may be right. We may need to work on this problem from multiple perspectives.” By simply validating opinions, the difficult behavior may stop.

  • Defer or deal: To defer the resistance, ask whether dealing with the other opinions later is okay. For example, you may say, “I’ll commit to having the same discussion with other team members, if you can commit to working on this side of the problem now.”

A last resort is to give even narrower options — stop the behavior or stop the conversation. Be careful not to use this option as a threat, but as a way to move forward.

Here you may say, “John, it seems to me that you’re placing the blame on other team members, and this is making it difficult to make progress. I see two options. We can work on a solution together, or we can stop the conversation and I can formalize a performance improvement plan.” Remember that this statement isn’t a threat, but a statement with options.

Silence is an influential tool. Don’t shy away from using silence as a powerful tool when you’re faced with resistance. Listening or simply choosing to be silent allows others to talk and process information.

Take a step back during critical conversations

One of the easiest ways to keep a critical conversation on track is to continue to build agreement on what to do next, and if the conversation goes astray or if the conversation begins to face resistance, go back to the last agreement and work from there.

Pretend that you’re a mountain climber. Most mountain climbers (at least those that tend to make it back down the mountain alive) use anchors to protect them from falling completely down the mountain if they slip or fall. Agreements throughout the discussion are your anchors, preventing the conversation from falling back to square one.

During a critical conversation, you may use these types of agreements. When you need to go backward to review a previous agreement, rephrasing or recapping the agreement can help clarify any uncertainties or vagueness.

When you kick off the conversation, ask whether all parties are willing to work on a solution. When exploring and examining what’s happening, ask whether all parties agree on what the problem is and why the problem exists. When deciding on options to move forward, make sure all parties agree to the value in solving the issue and know which options everyone can agree to, do, and support.

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