Ron McMillan is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am writing to request a little verification about feelings. In a previous column, Ron suggested that one way to phrase the interpretation of what happened was as follows: “I felt insulted, disrespected, and falsely accused.”
My question is this: Feeling insulted or disrespected is creating a story of the speaker’s intentions, right? They are not feelings, but rather thoughts. I am wondering if the interpretation would rather be “I consider the words you chose to be insulting and disrespectful.” I am really interested in your thoughts about this topic.
Dear Thinking Feelings,
What a great question!
Let me begin with a description of the skill you are referring to. When sharing meaning with others—especially when there’s a high likelihood of a defensive or emotional response—it’s best to state the facts first.
Don’t begin with an accusation: “You liar!” In our research, we found that beginning a crucial conversation with an accusation creates defensiveness (duh). Don’t begin with an “I” statement of emotion: “I am so disappointed in you.” That creates as much defensiveness as an accusation. Rather, begin by factually reporting what occurred—report behavior, details, and numbers. Do not begin with assumptions, conclusions, or judgments. For example: “In the meeting, you said that my team didn’t pull its weight on the last project.” It is a fact that the other person made that comment. Because facts are verifiable, observable, and measurable, they tend to create understanding and agreement.
After stating the facts, tell your story. Based on these facts, what are your tentative conclusions? How are you interpreting these facts? What do you think they mean? These conclusions, assumptions, and attributions are your stories. They are your creation. Many different stories could be created using the same set of facts. By sharing your story, you are enlarging the meaning available to others. You are disclosing how you regard the facts, as well as the meaning you’ve created. If relevant, share the feelings you have about your story. Certainly your feelings are relevant if the relationship is an important element of the issue being discussed. If you are discussing a tough issue with your spouse, emotions are not only relevant, they are important for your spouse to know. However, if you are discussing the best solution to a technical problem with your teammates at work, discussions of emotions are most likely inappropriate and unnecessary.
After tentatively stating the facts and telling your story, ask others how they see it. Now it’s your turn to listen. Your goal is to create dialogue and to expand the pool of shared meaning. By sharing your facts and stories, and asking for theirs, a lot of meaning is revealed in an efficient and effective way.
Back to your question. In my previous column, I suggested to the reader that she begin her crucial conversation by stating the facts. I next recommended that she say “I felt insulted, disrespected, and falsely accused” as a way of telling her story. In this example I used the language of emotion (“I felt….”) to tell my story. In this case, feelings are relevant because the crucial conversation is about the relationship between coworkers and a boss, and specifically about respect and fairness.
In my recommendation, I used shorthand to combine a statement about both the stories and emotions. Upon reflection, I think this is probably a lazy strategy. I agree with your observation. Your suggestion would improve my recommendation. You recommended saying “I consider the words you chose to be insulting and disrespectful!” This statement reports her story as a conclusion, not an emotion. She could stop there and ask her boss if that was the intention; or, another option would be to also report her feelings. “I feel angry and frustrated” then ask for their point of view: “Do you see it differently?” Or ask “Is this what you intended?”
All in all, good catch. You improved on my suggestion. I vow in future columns I will not stoop to lazy, short-hand phrases if you promise to keep thinking deeply about what you’re reading and send me your thoughts and questions.