Resolving Conflict when Others Disappoint, Step 3 – The Conversation

In our previous posts, we talked about deciding when to have a conversation with someone who has disappointed you, and how to prepare for having this kind of emotionally charged and difficult conversation. Now it’s the big day! The work isn’t over yet: Here are additional things to keep in mind so you can have a constructive conversation with someone who let you down.

The tips below are based on the book Crucial Accountability, which I highly recommend. The book also has sections specifically for managers who are resolving issues with employees, though I won’t cover those sections here.

Structuring the Conversation

Crucial Accountability recommends following a structure for the conversation:

  1. Share what happened from your point of view, focusing on the facts.
  2. Describe, from your point of view, what happened and what you wish had happened (e.g. We were doing x and I expected y to happen, but instead, z happened).
  3. Ask an open-ended question like, “Is that account correct?” or, “What happened from your point of view?”
  4. Listen and discuss while maintaining mutual respect and mutual purpose.
  5. Set goals or determine an outcome.

Structuring the conversation in this way focuses the discussion on the facts, not on your emotions. It also highlights the point at which the other person let you down without resorting to vague statements or passive aggressive comments. This will help keep the conversation from spiraling into a “you said, I said” fight.

Also, ending the conversation with an open-ended question allows the other person to share their point of view and correct any assumptions you might have made.

Maintain Mutual Respect

One of the most important parts of having these conversations is maintaining mutual respect. You wouldn’t be having a difficult conversation like this with someone else unless you wanted to repair the damage done to the relationship and come out on the other side with mutual respect.

  • Listen – The best way to do maintain respect is to listen. Keep an open mind when the other person is talking, and hear out their point of view. Listen for influences that may have led them to act the way they did.
  • Clarify – Clearly explain what you don’t mean and what you do mean. If the other person seems to be misinterpreting what you are saying, take the time to step back and make sure you are both on the same page. I’ve seen this happen in relationships when one partner wants more “quality time” together, but the other partner feels like they are already spending lots of “quality time” together. In this kind of situation, the underlying issue might be that one person’s definition of quality time doesn’t match the other’s.
  • Don’t Play Games – This would include trying to manipulate the other person, or trying to make them read your mind (statements along the lines of, “You know why I have been upset, right?”). Also avoid sandwiching the issue in between two compliments, or neglecting to “own” the issue by using statements like, “My boss is making me talk with you about this.” Avoid using a condescending, haughty, or sarcastic tone, and be sure your body language is not aggressive.
  • Consider their Feelings – Be sure to hold the meeting in private, and try to schedule it at a time when there are no other pressing commitments. If it’s a sensitive issue, ask permission to talk about the issue beforehand. If the other person seems afraid, angry, or uncomfortable at any time, take a step back and give them time to gather their emotions. Keep in mind, they may not have even known that you had concerns or were upset.

Set Goals or Determine an Outcome

The final part of any conversation like this should be setting goals and determining outcomes. This should be done together, as a team, while maintaining mutual purpose and respect. The goals or outcomes should have a set date to check back in and make sure progress is being made.

You should have come up with expected or ideal outcomes from the conversation while planning for this conversation. But keep in mind the outcomes, goals, and barriers surfaced by the other person during your discussion. Also, in situations where the other person may need to take more initiative to solve the problem, the best solution might be in their own head! Ask them questions like, “How would you fix this?” and, “Would you like me to help you?”

If upon hearing the other person’s point of view, you realize that your planned outcome may not be possible at this time, you can agree on a workaround–but not one that lets them get away with the behavior in the future. For example, if your frustration is caused by a partner who constantly picks you up late from work, and the conversation reveals that this issue is due to traffic, a workaround may be adjusting pick-up time to be 15 minutes later. However, your partner will have to pick you up consistently at the adjusted time to resolve the underlying frustration you discussed with them.

It’s okay to end this conversation without all the answers. As long as both participants leave the conversation with goals and a commitment to resolve the issue moving forward, you can always check back in at a later time.

In Conclusion

The preparation and tips above are useful as they help you focus on facts and ideal outcomes in a conversation that could easily get emotional or spiral out of control. It is never easy to resolve conflict when someone lets you down, but using this framework can provide confidence as you go into these difficult conversations.