Hearing the Unsaid


As with other human endeavors, managing a business consists of having critical conversations. The essence of effective group decision-making is having these conversations with those who have knowledge, expertise, and experience.

A critical conversation is one where a meaningful exchange of information and opinion occurs; that critical conversation is also likely to be an emotional and therefore difficult conversation. Unfortunately, everyday conventions of conversation and emotions of the moment often serve to divert and prevent critical conversations from taking place.

Even over years of being in business together, many business owners have not had critical conversations, or, if they have, the conversations have gone badly. In many cases despite prior failed attempts, owners can become aware of the basic skills of critical communication and facilitate critical conversations. If these problems of communication are significant, it is appropriate to consult a behavioral expert such as a psychologist.

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 the “Third Story.” The Third Story is the one a keen observer with no stake in the situation would tell. The Third Story is a description of the situation that rings true for both sides simultaneously. The Third Story recognizes that there may be differences between the parties without a judgment about who is right or whose view is more appropriate. Most conversations can be initiated from the Third Story to include both perspectives and invite joint exploration of advantageous future conduct.

Difficult conversations often have an underlying theme, the “What happened?” discussion. A direct discussion about “What happened?” is to be avoided. This discussion invokes disagreement about what happened. This discussion starts with 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.

Talking about fault is similar to talking about what happened, except that it takes the assumption about what happened one step further. Introducing fault evokes fears of punishment and insists on an either-or answer. Talking about fault produces disagreement, denial, and little learning such that energy is diverted into defensive actions.

Similarly, seeking to blame, a version of a fault discussion, 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 causing the situation. Other than in extreme cases, almost every situation that gives rise to a conversation is the result of a joint contribution system. Focusing on only one or the other of the contributors (a fault discussion) 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. Critical conversations are difficult because they involve emotion. Engaging in a difficult conversation without talking about feelings may seem like a saving of time, reduction of anxiety, and a way to avoid certain serious risks. Yet, 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 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 one who initiates a critical conversation, there needs to be an attitude of perceived curiosity and interest. Keeping in mind the “third story approach,” avoiding the “what happened” inquiry, and focusing on joint contribution rather than fault, interest is shown by asking questions and listening. Listening involves more than hearing the words spoken, it is perceiving what is said and that which is unsaid.

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 foundation in its aftermath.

In summary, to have a successful critical conversation, keep the following in mind:

1. Start with the “Third Story” – the story an objective observer would tell.

2. Do not ask “What happened?”

3. Do not talk about fault or assign blame.

4. Focus on the joint contribution of the parties that created the situation.

5. Each party should have an opportunity to express that party’s views and feelings by sharing that party’s story.

6. Ask and answer questions about feelings.

7. Each party should have examined that party’s values to feel comfortable and balanced about that party’s identity.

8. Each party should explore the other party’s perspective.

9. Once each party’s needs are known, ask “Is there a way to satisfy the needs of all of the parties?”

When in a critical conversation think about what is not being said. Should there be a question asked about this void? Are there emotions that are being hidden? What would be the reasons for obfuscation? Thoughtful questions can help with understanding what is not being said and why. That understanding may be the most valuable benefit of the conversation.