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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Simple Formula for Communicating Hard Messages at Work

co-workers speaking
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The following is an excerpt from The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career, which hits the shelves in April 2017.

One of the biggest mistakes people inadvertently make when communicating with others is passing off their feelings, perspectives, or observations as fact. This happens especially when sharing difficult messages, like critical feedback for a colleague or boss. Unsurprisingly, this often leads to conflict or frustration, instead of the resolu- tion or change you were going for.

In such situations, the key is to avoid passing off your feelings as objective statements, and in particular to avoid doing it in a way that could come off as judging. Take these two examples of giving a seemingly checked-out colleague feedback:

“You weren’t interested with what I had to say at last week’s meeting.”

“When I shared my ideas at last week’s meeting, I noticed you didn’t make eye contact or share your thoughts, and I felt like you weren’t interested in what I had to say.”

The former states your feelings as fact, and it shuts down the conversation by giving your colleague the opportunity to deny or disagree—he might answer, “Well no, I was actually very interested.”

In the second example, however, your colleague can’t argue with your feelings. You also make it harder to deny by giving specifics as to what made you perceive the situation the way you did. Even if he didn’t mean to, you felt like he wasn’t interested. The conversation can now focus on the effect, rather than the intention.

The trick is to use this simple formula: “When you did/said X, I felt Y.”

You can even add “Next time, it would be great if you could do Z” if there’s an actionable change you think would help. With a little practice, this strategy can become second nature and make you a pro at handling challenging conversations.