Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
My 16-year-old daughter survived the grueling tryout process and was made drum major of the marching band. Naturally, she was elated; but then she asked “What am I going to say to the kids who are mad that I got their spot?”
I think it’s a great question. Whenever we succeed at something (i.e. get elected, get the job, get promoted) we need to deal with those who are disappointed that they didn’t. We especially need to be ready for those who come up and say something short and mean, and then turn and walk away. Those are very tough conversations. It would be nice to have a strategy in place to soothe hurt feelings and win support.
Got any ideas?
Dealing with Sour Grapes
Dear Sour Grapes,
I do have some ideas; perhaps a few of them might approach being good ideas.
First, let me affirm your framing. These situations would qualify as crucial conversations. Often they are about issues that really matter (high stakes), opinions differ (I should have won; not you), and emotions clamor in. To reference a point we’ve made before: “If you don’t talk it out, you act it out.” In these situations, a lot is unclear. To avoid having either party act out their bad feelings, we need a new start that will help both talk about what they are working toward, and how they will work together.
Often when circumstances, relationships, or environments change, how we interact must also change. Whether those changes are the result of an election, a promotion, a move, a new job, a new school, a divorce, a marriage, etc., we need to step up and try to manage our relationships. This is true for whichever side of the change you’re on; the responsibility for dealing with or addressing the issues is owned by both individuals.
Here are a few ideas that might help those who face these challenges to engage in a dialogue.
Consider your own story. Sometimes, what we tell ourselves about the other person or the situation is more made up than real. For example, it would be possible after coming in first in a hard-won competition to assume that the “losers” are upset and will likely retaliate. That could cause you to be defensive in subtle or obvious ways and possibly to overreact to others’ behavior. To avoid jumping to conclusions, ask the humanizing question when you’re concerned: “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person act the way he or she’s acting?” In other words, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Such thinking can help you infer good motives and be patient. It sends blood to your brain and increases your options for how you see the other person and for next steps. Start by making sure your current thinking is open to positive possibilities.
Ask to talk about the situation. Whether you’re a “winner” or “loser”—or “new” or “incumbent”—if there is tension, ask the other person for the opportunity to talk. In the situation you mentioned, I’d suggest your daughter call or go talk with the individuals she was competing with and say, “I know the tryout competition was a disappointment to you. It was a tough process. Now that it’s over, we’ll still be together in the band. I want to work well together. I know you probably have some ideas and feelings about that. Can we talk?” Many of these talks will work well, others might not. But your daughter will have started off professionally and caringly. This approach should be initiated by those challenged with new jobs, promotions over peers, etc. Get your stories right and invite the other person to talk—safely and as soon as you can. When we don’t address issues quickly, negative feelings can get rigidified.
Listen as much as you talk. Speaking and listening are best done by turns. That means not interrupting or getting emotional. It means really trying to share and to understand. When you share your point of view, lead with observations (facts) and questions, rather than with conclusions (stories) and emotions. As you listen, look for signs that safety may be at risk. If you or the other person start getting emotional, acknowledge it: “I can see that this issue is really important to you. I’d really like to understand what you mean.” Or, if emotions are too strong on either side, you may need to ask for a short break and then return.
Emphasize Mutual Purpose. When the conversation gets tough, remind each other what your mutual purpose is: You’re trying to figure out what will help you work together well in the future, given the recent change.
And a final word: all changes can be seen as opportunities to clarify how we can work together well. Life comes at us in ways that cause us to maintain the status quo, rely on tradition, or cope with the change. Putting the issues on the table can mean getting through negative feelings to healthier relationships. Not all relationships will be improved, but talking about the issues increases your chance of success.