Difficult ConversationsPhoto credit: © Can Stock Photo / VDV

Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations can be relationship deal breakers especially at work where it could cost you a valuable customer or your job. So what do you say when you can’t say anything nice but you can’t exactly follow Mom’s advice and say nothing? My next guest, Sarita Maybin has some suggestions for you.

What You’ll Discover About Difficult Conversations:

If You Can't Say Something Nice *  How to decide whether it’s worth confronting someone and have the difficult conversation. [3:09]

*  3 factors that influence the best way to have that difficult conversation. [4:50]

*  How to respond when someone is having a difficult conversation with YOU. [8:14]

*  How not to get defensive during a difficult conversation. [11:32]

*  That there are more than two extreme responses when managing conflicts. [14:52]

*  The power of seeking to understand instead of blowing up. [19:30]

*  How conflict and difficult conversations are inevitable. [20:32]


Hanna Hasl-Kelchner: [00:00:00] Difficult conversations can be relationship deal breakers, especially at work, where it could cost you a valuable customer or even your job. So what do you say when you can’t say anything nice but you can’t exactly follow mom’s advice and say nothing? My next guest has some great suggestions for you.


Announcer: [00:00:22] This is Business Confidential Now with Hanna Hasl-Kelchner helping you see business issues hiding in plain view that matters to your bottom line.


Hanna: [00:00:33] Welcome to Business Confidential Now. I’m your host, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, and today’s special guest is Sarita Maybin, an international speaker, communication expert, author and former university dean of students who also happens to be the author of If You Can’t Say Anything Nice. What Do You Say? Perfect. Right?


In her 20 plus year speaking career, she’s made it her mission to inspire others to embrace positivity, even amid the challenges of our ever-changing high-tech times. She’s spoken in all 50 states, nine countries and on the prestigious TED stage, and she grew up as a military brat moving from country to country. And Sarita says that’s where she learned how to make friends fast and how to finesse stressful situations. And that’s when she discovered that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that matters. Over the years, she’s refined those techniques and she’s even street tested her strategies with clients such as Hewlett Packard, Kaiser Permanente, Los Angeles County Department of Navy and hundreds of other world class organizations. And that’s why I’m so delighted to have her join me here today. Welcome to Business Confidential Now, Sarita.


Sarita Maybin: [00:01:51] Thank you, Hanna. It’s great to be here.


Hanna: [00:01:53] Yours is such a fascinating topic. How to diffuse difficult conversations before they blow up in your face or as more accurately titled in the description of your book. If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say? So let’s start with your book. What inspired you to write? If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say?


Sarita: [00:02:13] Well, you know, as you alluded to in the introduction, we’ve all heard from mom or grandma or somebody along the way, If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. And so over the years as a speaker, I would start every keynote by inviting the audience to complete that familiar phrase. And no matter where I am, I mean, even as far away as Iceland in the Arctic Circle, they can complete the phrase If You Can’t Say Something Nice and in unison they’ll say, don’t say anything at all. But invariably somebody would come up to me during a break or after my presentation and they’d say, Well, sorry, If You Can’t Say Something Nice, what do you say? And so I start joking about the fact that someday I’m going to write a book by that title, because that was always the exact wording of the question. Well If You Can’t Say Something Nice. What do you say? And that is really where the idea started. And so for many years I heard that question before I even wrote the book. That question was prompted over and over.


How to Decide Whether to Confront Someone


Hanna: [00:03:09] Well, I’m glad you put it in writing in between two covers. So let’s say you find yourself in a work situation. And when do you decide to confront someone? And when do you decide to let it go?


Sarita: [00:03:24] Yes, I love it, that’s a great question, I always share what I call kind of a litmus test to determine whether it’s confrontation worthy. And I always say that the first question should be, is the person’s behavior having a negative effect? Either they’re slowing down progress or causing deadlines to be missed. They’re bringing down the morale in some way. There’s a negative effect. So that’s the first of three questions. The second question to ask is, is it starting to affect my attitude? Like I’m cringing at the sight of that person. I’m trying to avoid them. You know, I’m becoming a little negative because of them. And so then I might want to confront. And then thirdly, the last but not least is what happens or what is the consequence of not confronting. So there may be, you know, good people who are leaving the team. There may be people who are not wanting to work on the project because of those people. So there might be some negative consequence of not confronting. So those are the three questions that I think are important to ask ourselves as a kind of a guide to confront or not confront.


Hanna: [00:04:30] I love that. That’s a nice, tidy package. And I think pretty easy to remember because we all run into those types of situations. Now, let’s say you’ve gone through that analysis and you’re like, no, I, I can’t or I shouldn’t let it go. What’s the best way to confront someone?


Best Way to Confront Someone if You Can’t Say Something Nice


Sarita: [00:04:50] Well, you know, I love the fact that you refer to the three litmus test questions as tidy. It’s tidy. I like when things are tangible and tidy. And one of the things I spend a bit of time talking about in Chapter one of If You Can’t Say Something Nice is what I call AIR and that’s a three-step process that you can use once you do make the decision to confront and the “A” stands for awareness. And the reason I talk about that is I’m always amazed at how many people are walking around with the proverbial spinach in their teeth and don’t even know they’re part of the problem. And I’m and I have endless stories. I could go off on tangents, but a lot of people coming to me saying, you know, this person, I don’t think they even know that there’s an issue. And so making them aware of it by saying, hey, perhaps you didn’t realize or maybe you didn’t know. And I’m sure it wasn’t your intention. Those types of phrases are really kind of awareness phrases. And then “I”, what is the impact? So they circle back to what are the negative consequences? Is there a reason that I care to confront? And then last but not least, is the “R”, what is your request? And I have to laugh because I asked the audience one time to ponder in your heart of hearts, what do you really want, know what’s your ask, what’s your request. And the one guy says, well really, if I’m honest, I would like them to never come back to work again.


Sarita: [00:06:14] Please go away. Go away. Don’t ever darken my doorway again. So I always have to have a disclaimer, a disclaimer and say short of them never showing up again. Short of that, you know, what do you specifically want them to do differently? Because if you don’t know that, you really are not going to have a productive conversation to go in there — and it’s also a good way to determine why is it that I’m even going to confront them, you know, so that’s an important part. Are they aware of it? What’s the negative impact? And then “R” is your request what you want them to do differently?


Hanna: [00:06:51] I think being specific in that request besides just get out of my face. But yeah.


Sarita: [00:06:57] Yeah, exactly.


Hanna: [00:06:59] It’s not helpful to just say I don’t like your attitude, you know, it’s like, hey, this is me. Like OK, what don’t you like what’s . . . let’s get specific . . .that I don’t laugh at your jokes that . . . I mean what is it that I’m doing. Let’s be concrete so I know what could be measured for example.


Sarita: [00:07:15] Yes. Yes. I call that quantifying attitude because we can’t people can’t change the attitude unless you quantify it and say, you know, when you raise your voice when talking to the customers, they perceive that as negative.


Hanna: [00:07:28] Right.


Sarita: [00:07:28] Is it that? Or when you cut people off at the meetings, people feel like you don’t care what they have to say. So that very tangible, specific, behavioral, behavioral feedback.


Hanna: [00:07:38] Right. Because like you said, they may not be aware. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s flip the tables here, because it’s one thing if somebody in a supervisory or leadership position and they have to confront a situation that is causing some negative consequences on their team or in their organization. But what if you’re on the receiving end of that type of difficult conversation and somebody actually has the nerve to confront you? How do you keep your head from I love to keep from exploding?


When You’re on the Receiving End of Confrontation


Sarita: [00:08:14] You know, I love the fact that you say to me that that’s what it feels like. How dare they say that, well, you know, I have to tell you the best advice I’ve ever received along those lines my entire life was one of my mentors in graduate school who told me that when you get criticism, there’s only three words that you need to use and that’s “asked for more,” which is the very last thing we want to do. We don’t want to ask for any more criticism. We don’t want to ask for more. And so I filed that away. Is good to know. Nice to know information. And I remember some years later when I was a supervisor working in the university arena, I actually went to a training for supervisors where they told us, you know, go back and ask your staff in your one on one meetings, ask them what suggestions they have for improving the department. And I went back and I remember asking this one guy who I supervised. What do you think we should do to improve the department? And his answer was, you could be a better supervisor.


Sarita: [00:09:20] And I remember all the red alert, red alert alarms going off, like you say, how dare he say I could be a better supervisor? And I was all prepared to get defensive when I remembered the ask for more advice. And so I said to him, well, how do you mean? I could have said, tell me more. Can you elaborate? Can you give me an example and tell me more? And he says, well, you know, some of us were talking and we realized we don’t know what you think about how we’re doing on a day to day basis. So I said, well, what do you suggest? And he said, well, you could tell us one thing we’re doing well when we have our meetings and one thing we need to work on. And that was a brilliant piece of advice that I tried out on everyone. But it was his advice. And I thought, wow, if I had shut him down and said, insubordinate, I’m writing you up, which was my instinct, that would have been a whole different outcome. And so to this day, I feel like the best advice is when you get criticism, ask for more, seek out additional detail, some explanation, some examples, rather than going into the hole. Here is what happened. And explaining mood.


Hanna: [00:10:27] Yeah, that gets real defensive.


Sarita: [00:10:28] So that’s. Yeah, yeah, it does. And that’s our first instinct I think is to explain. Well when you don’t know, here’s what’s going on. And really that’s just the fancy way of arguing.


Hanna: [00:10:39] True. True. But in asking for more like you said earlier, it probably makes a big difference in how you ask for more because you can say the words. But if it’s like. Yeah, like what? That’s (laughter) that’s not that’s not a warm fuzzy like. I’m receptive to hearing what you have to say, right?


Sarita: [00:10:59] Yep. Yep. In fact, it’s funny because I think everything . . . I’m big on phrases and when I do my keynotes, I’m always offering phrases. I even have my top ten positive phrases on my little card I give out with the phrases and I have all of this. A lot of stuff revolves around, well, what do you actually say? Because theory is great, research is wonderful, but at the end of the day, what am I going to say to them when I’m talking to them directly? But I feel like I always have the disclaimer that if you say it in a snarky way, you know, all bets are off. So that’s yeah. That’s the key. It’s how you say it.


How Not to Get Defensive


Hanna: [00:11:32] Most definitely. Most definitely. What are some tips for helping people not get defensive? Because like you said, you know, we’re kind of wired that way. And I think it’s a natural reaction. How do you catch your breath and stop yourself from sounding defensive, even if the words come out, even if they’re like, oh, I have Sarita’s buzzwords here. These are good phrases. I’m going to use them. How do you stop that, you know, the adrenaline? You feel your face start getting red, that whole rush that goes on when you feel like you’re under attack.


Sarita: [00:12:10] Yeah. This this sounds a little bit cliche, but I’m always a fan of taking a deep breath because I can actually feel myself getting warm when my buttons push, like the all the blood is rushing to my face. And I feel like I have to take a deep breath to calm myself down before responding. But one of the things, though, that I always think is so important, is to not take things personally. And I heard a quote years ago where someone said, how people treat us is more a function of who they are than a function of who we are. And I’m sure I misquoted it slightly. But that wasn’t the exact wording. But it was really about acknowledging that someone who says something to us, maybe even in a kind of a harsh way, it’s coming from their frustration or their concern. And so can we put ourselves in their shoes and say, well, what, how about how might this be feeling for them? What might be their experience? But I still think we need to take that deep breath first to even objectively think, OK, this is not about me, I’m not going to take this personally.


Hanna: [00:13:16] Well, that’s really a leadership challenge, though.


Sarita: [00:13:19] It is. Yeah, it is. You know, and one of the other things that’s fascinating to me is I heard years ago something that was quite helpful, which was to ask ourselves on any level is what they’re saying true? Like, have I heard this feedback before? Does it sound familiar? In fact, I think in my If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say the last chapter, which is focused on supervisors, I say something to the effect of have I heard this before? You know, to ask yourself, is this familiar? Because I think most of the time when we get feedback on things, it’s not the first time that’s come up. Other people have probably shared something similar. So that’s helpful.


Hanna: [00:14:00] That’s right. The echo keeps coming back and back again. You’d think by now we’d learn? Right? You would think. But it’s tough sometimes.


Sarita: [00:14:11] It really is, because you have the best of intentions. You’re used to doing things a certain way. And I think people make excuses for themselves too, “oh, they just don’t get me.” But I remember interviewing one professor who has done a lot of research in the leadership area and she said that, you know, leadership is not an excuse for being rude. Never. Right? And that gets lost sometimes in positional authority. They’re used to their title and the perks and the privileges that come with it. And that includes the way they use their power. And words are definitely . . .


Sarita: [00:14:52] Right.


Response Options


Hanna: [00:14:52] . . . are part of that power, so I think this is all really – it all kind of ties back together. So, Sarita, what would be the one thing you’d want readers to take away from your book If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You say?


Sarita: [00:15:08] I think the one thing I’d want them to take away is that there are options other than the two extremes. We sometimes think that there’s only two options. The option is either to say nothing at all on one end of the continuum or on the other end the ugly and snarky. And I feel like that, what I’d like them to take away is that there’s a whole continuum of responses. It’s not just either say nothing or be ugly. So that’s, I think that looking at options and choices of how we phrase our words, I think that’s important to know that there’s lots of options.


Hanna: [00:15:46] On this continuum, I’d like to explore that a little bit, if you don’t mind. What would be a sort of subtle way to broach the subject before you go to the nuclear option.


Sarita: [00:16:00] I love it. You know, I mentioned the A in the AIR acronym Awareness, and I’m reminded of a woman who came up to me after one of my keynotes and she says, “you know Sarita I think my co-worker is lying awake at night plotting my demise.” And before I could even censor myself and say something profound, I said, no, she’s not, you’re lying awake at night, she’s sleeping soundly.


Sarita: [00:16:30] I mean, she confessed that indeed she didn’t think the woman really was aware of the fact that there was a problem. And so I think one of the things that happens is we spend a lot of time ruminating and debating and thinking about the situation before we confront it. So it’s not like we’re going to just walk in out of the blue and say something. We’ve been giving it a lot of thought. And so when I talk about phrasing, in my top 10 phrases, phrase ten and nine are what I call give them the benefit of the doubt. And so those two standards you may not realize nine is are you aware of the effect? And so I think giving the benefit of the doubt is a kind of a broad positive approach rather than just pouncing. Whereas when you get all the way down to phrase one, phrase one is what will it take? So at some point, we get more direct, we get more pointed to say, what will it take for us to resolve this? What will it take to get your cooperation? So but I think initially we start out with assuming that maybe they aren’t aware that there is an issue.


Sarita: [00:17:33] So I talk a lot about giving people the benefit of the doubt when you go to them rather than going in kind of an accusatory posture, because they may not even know there’s a problem, which I think also goes to an earlier point you made about your willingness to address issues, because the thing is, people do kind of let things slide, and assuming that, well, they know, but I’m going to let it go. I’m going to let it go. And then it kind of builds up like a pressure cooker until, boom, you know, somebody just had enough.


Hanna: [00:18:06] And it could be that last straw, which, OK, that’s a cliche, but it’s just a tiny thing or like, well, that’s a big deal. What happened last week? You think that’s bad? Hey, that’s nothing compared to a month ago. And in reality, it’s layers upon layers upon layers over many weeks, months and sometimes years where it just sometimes takes a little spark to make somebody go off.


Sarita: [00:18:33] And the irony of that is when the pressure cooker, I love the pressure cooker analogy, the pressure cooker explodes and we go kind of crazy. We feel guilty. So then we slink all the way back to the other side of the continuum, which is to say nothing at all on the continuum. So sometimes we kind of vacillate between say nothing at all, build up, build up, build up, boom, and then run back guiltily to saying nothing. So that’s why I feel like it’s so important to address situations somewhere in the middle ground so that we don’t keep going from one extreme to the other because we’ve had the big blow up and then we run back and say nothing at all.


Hanna: [00:19:15] Because unfortunately, when the blow up happens, the person doing the blowing up is the one that gets blamed. Instead of somebody stepping back and saying, what provoked this? How did we get to this point? Which is unfortunate.


Sarita: [00:19:30] That’s right. That’s right. And, you know, I talk a lot, too, about seeking input. And I have phrases that kind of go along with that. But I find that sometimes we need to get additional information to understand what’s going on because we make assumptions about why the person is doing that annoying thing that they’re doing and we just want them to stop. But maybe we can get more input. And I use phrases like, you know, help me understand. And I notice this is going on. I’m wondering what’s happened and just really trying to investigate kind of as the as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People used to say seek first to understand. And I feel like sometimes if we can understand more about why are they doing this, maybe, you know, maybe we can empathize or even understand without being annoyed.


Hanna: [00:20:19] Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Sarita, you’ve had a really interesting career. And I’m wondering, as you’ve progressed on your career path, what do you think has influenced you the most?


Conflict is Inevitable


Sarita: [00:20:32] Oh, that’s a great question, because there’s been a lot of things that influenced me along the way.


Sarita: [00:20:38] One of the things, though, I find I grew up as a military brat and my dad, you know, moved the family every few years.


Sarita: [00:20:44] And one of the things that was fascinating about that is when we would move, there always be someone who we were happy to leave. You know, we had friends and we’d say bye. We’d be sad. But there’d always be somebody that we’d say, oh, you know, bye-bye. And one of the things that was kind of amusing to me is we get to the new place and someone very much like them would be there and push the same buttons. And so what influenced me early on was realizing that you can run, but you can’t hide. When it comes to disagreements, when it comes to conflict, that it really was kind of inevitable.


Sarita: [00:21:22] And of course, in my journey along the way, working in universities, I spent a lot of time helping students deal with conflicts, teaching staff how to resolve these situations and running a lot of committee meetings where there was, you know, 10 people, 10 different opinions. So somewhere along the way, just kind of finding out that there’s always going to be a difference of opinion, which is natural, and there’s always going to be people who push our buttons. And the question is, how can we learn to coexist? And it’s not something we can eventually avoid. We think we can avoid it and inevitably we’ll have to deal with it. So that I think that’s that. Yeah, moving around a lot. And then, of course, in the university arena, had lots of opportunity to deal with the conflict resolution.


Hanna: [00:22:13] I’m sure. I’m sure. But I’m you know, I’m really glad that you had all these experiences and these aha moments because thanks to you, we now have a valuable book. If You Can’t Say anything. I’m sorry. You Can’t Say Something Nice What Do You Say that helps us hit the reset button. So thank you very much, Sarita.


Sarita: [00:22:37] Thank you for having me today. I really feel like we’re always looking for ways to communicate more effectively. So that’s always a fun project to see how we can accomplish that.


Hanna: [00:22:47] Exactly. Thank you.


Hanna: [00:22:50] That’s our show for today. Thank you for joining me. If you’d like to learn more about today’s guest, you can go to our Web site at BusinessConfidentialRadio.com. It’s got a lot of other powerful information and resources available to help your business grow. So be sure to check that out. The website again is BusinessConfidentialRadio.com.


Hanna: [00:23:11] I’m Hanna Hasl-Kelchner and you’ve been listening to Business Confidential Now. Have a great rest of the day and an even better tomorrow.

Guest: Sarita Maybin

Sarita Maybin Sarita Maybin is an international speaker, communication expert, and former university dean of students who also happens to be the author of If You Can’t Say Something Nice, What Do You Say?

In her 20+ year speaking career she has made it her mission to inspire others to embrace positivity, even amid the challenges of our ever-changing high-tech times. She has spoken in all 50 states, nine other countries, and on the prestigious TEDx stage.

Growing up as a “military brat” moving from country to country, Sarita mastered how to make friends fast and finesse stressful situations. That’s how she discovered it was not just what you say, but how you say it that matters.

Over the years she has refined those techniques and she’s even street-tested her strategies with clients such as Hewlet Packer, Kaiser Permanente, Los Angeles County, Department of the Navy and hundreds of other world-class organizations.

Related Resources:

Contact Sarita and connect with her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

Also visit her website for more information about her work.

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