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A Weird Way To Nail Difficult Conversations At Work
Role-play. That’s it. That’s the entire post. Thanks for reading, see ya later.
“I’ve learned that if you plan for every variable, a happy outcome doesn’t need to be left to chance.” This quote is the premise behind Nathan Fielder’s HBO show “The Rehearsal,” where he helps individuals through difficult conversations or situations by having them rehearse over and over in settings that he constructs to mimic the real world.
It’s a bit out there, but builds on how much of a positive effect role-playing a scenario can have on the desired outcome. Unfortunately, we can’t have Nathan Fielder in our pocket for our day-to-day conversations.
If you’re preparing for a difficult conversation, you can think through it hundreds of times, but the moment you say it out loud it becomes real. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started giving feedback and have cringed at how something came out.
Over the years I’ve started role-playing conversations on both sides and it helped quite a bit. It’s simple, only takes a few minutes, but can save you a lot of mental pain. Does it feel awkward and weird the first few times? Absolutely. Does it make the real conversation easier? Absolutely. Here are some easy ways to get started.
Choosing A Role-play Partner
Peers, managers, spouses, kids, your pet, the other individual doesn’t matter so much, but it should be someone that is unbiased and removed from the situation you are trying to resolve. Don’t give them their own script and don’t try to get them to respond a certain way. Let them live as the other party and see how things go.
Giving them this freedom creates more spontaneity and leaves you less likely to know how they will respond. Ways they may react:
Curt, short, and rude
Excited to hear feedback and extremely grateful
Beat themselves up and blow the feedback out of proportion
Middle of the road, neutral
No response (pets are great for this one)
Every situation is different, so giving your partner free rein to react how they want enhances the exercise. If you feel weird about it, remember that as kids we use to pretend all the time! Don’t let being a curmedgeon-y adult stop you from this unlock.
How To Set Up A Role-play Conversation
Give the situation, a bit of background on the relationship, and the result you’re trying to get to.
Situation: I need this person to stop interrupting others in meetings
Background: They have done this in the last 3 meetings we were in together.
Result I’m Aiming For: Help the individual to stop interrupting others.
Keep the result in mind, but remember the result is not finite. There are many versions of the result and it might not be exactly what you expected. With the setup in mind, rip the bandaid off with your partner and give it a shot.
Excellent, you got the first awkward one out of the way. Ask your exercise partner for feedback on the message, and be a critic for yourself as well:
What do you wish you said better?
Which message was unclear?
Did you get the result you wanted?
What questions does your partner have about the situation?
Poke at it! You are preparing to give someone this feedback in real life, and if you’re nervous, this is the perfect opportunity to screw up. Don’t worry if it wasn’t perfect, you can reset and try again.
Reframe and Repeat
It’s possible that the framing of the feedback was not optimal. Think about what was said, how it was framed, and why it might have been misunderstood or misrepresented. Your partner has no skin in the game here, so if even they are confused, it’s possible your message needs some massaging.
If it was unclear due to stammering or stumbling over your words, think about how you can make your delivery more straight-forward. In many cases we have too much build-up to our feedback instead of being direct. Cut out the fluff and try it again.
If the feedback is well-received, try another take, but reframe the outcome you are aiming for. By working the feedback from a different angle, you either bolster the direction you went initially, or find a better way to deliver.
Once reviewed, try it again. Let your partner veer off into another response path if they choose to do so, and see where you land.
You’ve practiced and the moment to give the feedback for real is upon you. Take a deep breath, remember what you practiced, and give it your best shot. Keep the core tenets of Radical Candor in mind: care personally, and challenge directly.
Once the feedback is given, give the opportunity for clarification, questions, etc. Don’t get bogged down too much in the “what happens next” of the situation, but help the individual know you are there to support them regardless.
It took me a long time to learn that sometimes the only help I had to offer was the feedback itself. Adopting the mindset that feedback is a gift will ensure your feedback is helpful even when you can’t offer actual help. Don’t let the fact that you can’t offer actual help make you reluctant to offer feedback.
— Kim Scott / Radical Candor
Role-playing can seem a bit strange, but the benefits are limitless. When you know you have to have a difficult conversation, play out the scenario, but don’t go it alone. Find a partner, work through it together, and see the benefits in the real conversation.
Bonus points if you record yourself giving the feedback in your practice sessions to critique yourself later on, but small steps are best.
Let me know below if you have any other tips or tricks for preparing yourself to have hard conversations!