How do you deal with the coworker whose feelings seem to get hurt constantly? who overreacts to the most innocent comments? who takes everything personally?
On our podcast the other day, Jim (“The Business Guy”) asked me (“The Psychology Guy”) how to handle these people. You can hear how I responded – it’ll give you some tips for positive approaches – but I wanted to flesh out my answer here in a way that applies to all conversations. Especially all difficult conversations.
When a conversation goes south, we tend to think one person is to blame. In the case of hurt feelings, we think “Jane is too sensitive,” or “John was just plain mean.”
More often than not, both are responsible.
There are two parts of every message: (1) the delivery, and (2) the receipt. Reality lies in the dynamic between the two.
When I have something challenging to say, two things matter:
- My intention
- The quality of my execution
If my intention, truthfully, is to blame you, make you wrong, or control you, then no carefully crafted language is likely to land well
If, on the other hand, my intention is to understand, to open to your perspective, to resolve an issue without blame, to make things better for all involved, then I have a foundation for delivering the message effectively.
Then it’s about “the quality of my execution”: my ability to strip my language of judgment, subjectivity, and generalization. Also my body language, facial expression and vocal tone as I address you.
Do these things right, and the arrow sails true from the bow.
And then it becomes about how the target moves, and what it’s made of.
Words are never reality. Words simply point to reality. And the reality that words point toward is slightly different for everyone who hears them. Because we’ve all traveled unique roads and have unique filters that transform those words on their way to landing in us. In a word, we interpret. Everything.
How I “hear” your words depends on so many things – my relationship with you, my personality style, my values, my self-confidence, my maturity, my neuroses, my sense of humor. You know this: you can deliver the exact same message to two different people and have it received entirely differently. Vive la difference! … and how frustrating at the same time.
The most effective challenging conversation is one in which the Message Deliverer is not only:
- positively intentioned and attuned to the quality of her execution, but also:
- attuned to those filters through which the Receiver hears.
And the Receiver, for his part:
- sees his own filters objectively — and adjusts the target,
- accurately assesses the intentions of the Deliverer (or if not, inquires into them),
- forgives the Deliverer’s lapses in execution, and
- doesn’t take those lapses personally
Recipe for a challenging conversation, from 30,000 feet.
The Boss Show episode, “Poor Baby! Hurt Feelings in the Workplace!” was released on July 18, 2013.