Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I believe my boss has some bad news to deliver to me. How can I set the tone so that it is easier for her to give me the news and feedback I need (and also speed up the process!)?
Waiting on Pins and Needles
Sometimes you get a sense others have something to say or something to talk to you about, but are reluctant to do so. They may try a few false starts, then say, “Oh, never mind.” Or maybe it’s more subtle; when you make eye contact they avert their glance or maybe avoid you on occasions they would usually seek you out. It can be uncomfortable and troubling.
Most often, when someone is not talking to you about a subject, it’s because he or she doesn’t feel safe. The key to opening up dialogue and helping others feel safer talking with you about the sticky subject is to MAKE it safe.
Safety is primarily a function of two factors: Mutual Purpose (Do you care about what the other person cares about?) and Mutual Respect (Is your regard for him or her high enough that you treat him or her respectfully?). By building and strengthening these two conditions you can often help others feel safe enough to talk about so-called “undiscussable” topics.
In the situation you describe, you might try approaching your boss like this. “Could I talk with you for a few minutes? Is now a good time?” Asking for the other person’s permission to talk is a way to show respect. Once it’s established, make sure you maintain respect in how you communicate throughout your conversation.
Now work on Mutual Purpose—for both the results and the relationship. “I am absolutely committed to the goals we’ve set together, and I want to do a good job. I also want a good working relationship; one where we can plan together and talk through any issue.”
Pause and give your boss a chance to respond.
Now use inquiry skills to invite her to share. “Is there something you want to talk over with me?” This approach might be enough to get your boss to share. If she’s hesitant or reluctant, you might try a contrast. Compare what you don’t want with what you do want. “I don’t want to pry or make you feel uncomfortable. I just want to make sure we’re talking through any issues that need attention.” In most cases this effort will make it safer for your boss to open up. If so, you’re on your way. It’s mighty hard to solve a problem until you know what it is.
If at this point your boss is still reluctant to talk about the issue, you might try a skill called “priming.” Priming is a matter of taking your best guess about what the issue is and offering that up to get the other person’s response. Sometimes if you are willing to name the subject, the other person feels safe enough to talk about it.
You might say, “I’m wondering, does this have something to do
with _________?”(Fill in the blank) or “Are you feeling frustrated about _________?”(Fill in the blank).
However, having gone this far, if your boss still doesn’t want to talk, stop. Perhaps there is no issue to discuss and you were mistaken; or perhaps your boss has decided not to bring it up at this time. Either way, to press your inquiry might be to cross the boundary into disrespect. Further inquiry might feel like pressuring or badgering.
At this point, the way you contribute to safety is by disengaging. End this conversation with an invitation. “Well, I just want you to know that I’m anxious to keep our relationship open and I want to work through anything that might come up. Okay?”
By disengaging and showing respect you make it safer for you boss to talk with you in the future. The key now is to be consistently respectful and to work toward Mutual Purpose.
After some time passes (Hours? Days? Exercise your best judgment), you might look for a chance to pursue the topic again and see if your boss is inclined to talk things over. Patience, Mutual Purpose, Mutual Respect, and Consistency will build trust, safety, and relationships.
Best of Luck,