“I Will Talk to You About That for Five Minutes Tomorrow”

How often have you wanted to have a conversation – a difficult conversation on a tough topic – and the answer you get from the person you need to have the conversation with is: “I will talk to you about that for five minutes tomorrow” or something equivalent. From this response you know the conversation is unlikely to occur, and, if it does, it will not be given the attention it deserves. A critical conversation is one where a meaningful exchange of information and opinion occurs; it is also likely to be a difficult conversation to have. Unfortunately, everyday conventions of conversation and emotions of the moment often serve to divert and prevent critical conversations.

Each business owner should be aware of the principles of conducting a critical and difficult conversation so that those conversations result in an increased understanding of the values and feelings of the other owners. With this competency in place, the group planning process, required for effective strategic planning, is possible.

For each owner to engage in critical conversations with the other owners, there are two concerns. The first is whether the owner can define the values of the owner with respect to the business. The second is whether the owner can articulate those values to the other owners.

Defining Values

A value is a normative principle that informs and shapes thoughts, desires, feelings, choices, and behavior. A value is not a preference, but an enduring and essential attribute of character. Most owners are only vaguely aware of the standards and concerns that compose their personal value systems. Most unthinkingly embrace an array of normative standards to which they assume most caring and intelligent people adhere. Few have consciously attempted to resolve the tension that inevitably arises when those standards and concerns conflict.

Even if core values are not articulated, owners will still have a sense of what they are. Plans that conflict with these core values will not seem right and not be satisfying to the owner. It is essential for each owner to think about the core values that are important to the planning and define those values. This comes from the axiomatic observation that if one exercises personal choice in the management of resources in harmony with core values, one will likely experience a sense of self-fulfillment and personal well-being.

If an owner’s value system is to serve effectively as the framework for the formulation of the succession plan, the owner must first clarify and prioritize its components. To bring clarity and order to the owner’s personal value system, the owner should reflect on the circumstances and experiences that have informed and shaped the owner’s hopes, fears, and perspectives. The product of this reflection should be memorialized in writing. The writing should be reviewed and altered from time to time to reflect changing circumstances and perspectives.

Each owner should understand his or her value system and be able to bring an articulation of that value system into conversations regarding the conduct and ownership of the business.

Having the Conversation

Generally, owners spend very little time discussing goals, instead, there are assumptions declared: “we all want to make as much money as we can” or “this is what we have always wanted.” Most owners, even if they develop a strategic plan, are not able to articulate values statements that will communicate what are acceptable goals. The formulation of effective goals comes only after candid discussions between owners – critical conversations – where the owners are articulating their values with clear value statements and through a group decision-making process stating strategic goals acceptable to all owners.

Frequently business owners have not had critical conversations, or, if they have, the conversations have gone badly, and the topics have not been revisited. Despite failed attempts, owners can become aware of the basic skills of critical communication and facilitate critical conversations. If these problems of communication are significant and reoccurring, then a behavioral expert such as a psychologist should be consulted.

The most stressful moment of a difficult conversation is often the beginning, but it is also a moment of opportunity. Difficult conversations should be initiated from the perspective of a neutral party observer. This is the observation a keen observer with no stake in the problem would make. It is a description of the topic or situation that rings true for all sides simultaneously. This view recognizes that there may be a difference between the parties without judgment about who is right or whose perspective is more appropriate. Most conversations can be initiated from this view to include all perspectives and invite joint exploration.

Difficult conversations often have an underlying current involving past events – the “What happened?” discussion. This invites disagreement about past events. This discussion invokes assumptions made regarding motivation and blame. Frequently each party adopts the assumption: I am right, you are wrong. One party will assume knowledge about the intentions of other parties when that knowledge cannot be had. When intentions are not understood, frequently they are supposed to be bad intentions. Assumptions about intentions derived from observed behavior frequently are incorrect. A direct discussion involving “What happened?” is to be avoided.

Talking about fault is a corollary to talking about what happened – it produces disagreement, denial, and little learning. It evokes fears of punishment and insists on an either-or answer. Energy is diverted into defensive actions. Talking about blame distracts the participants and prevents a dialogue concerning why things went wrong and what corrections might be appropriate in the future.

The focus of a difficult conversation should be on understanding the contribution system. Other than in extreme cases, almost every situation that gives rise to a conversation is the result of a joint contribution system. That is actions of many parties produced a past event. Focusing on only one or the other of the contributors obscures rather than illuminates that system.

Also part of the critical conversation is the feelings discussion. The feelings discussion asks and answers questions about feelings. Difficult conversations involve emotion. In fact, difficult conversations are at their very core about feelings. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings may save time and reduce anxiety, and it may seem like a way to avoid certain serious risks. However, if feelings are at the core of the difficult conversation, what has been accomplished if feelings are not addressed?

To be aware of feelings requires an acknowledgment of the identity concern which is the primary emotion of each owner. The identity concern results in one feeling confident and centered or off-center and anxious. Three questions illustrate common identity concerns: Am I competent? Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love? For each owner, thinking clearly and honestly about values and actions with respect to those values can help reduce the anxiety experienced during a difficult conversation and significantly strengthen an owner’s commitment to the goals of the business.

Strategic Business Plan

In drafting a strategic business plan, the work done in forming goals acceptable to all owners is essential to the effectiveness of the plan and the success of the business. For each owner to agree with and support a strategic plan, the goals of the plan should appear to that owner to enhance the owner’s sense of well-being, including a sense of self-fulfillment. For a plan to accomplish that sense of personal well-being and self-fulfillment for each owner, that owner must perceive that the plan has been formulated in accordance with that owner’s values.

Use of a decision-making process to set strategic goals within an effective plan depends on whether the business owners can define their values and then articulate their values to one another. To plan, and especially to succession plan, the owners of a business must have the skill and the desire to have critical conversations about their intentions for the business. For the group effort of the owners to plan based on values, they must engage in these conversations and in so doing be able to articulate their values such that the goals of the plan are based at least in part on each owner’s articulation of values and provides a sense of personal well-being and self-fulfillment for each owner.