Crucial Conversations QA

What To Do When a Conversation Fails

Dear Candace,

I work at a church, and sometimes the members cause drama. Recently we received from a parent two angry emails about our children’s ministry. This parent has a reputation for getting angry, but she’s rooted in the church so probably isn’t going away. For a long time, I deliberated whether it was worth asking her to offer feedback in less emotionally charged ways, then I scheduled a meeting. I explained that I am open to feedback but asked that she give it more constructively. She didn’t respond as I’d hoped, saying, “I needed you to know how angry I was,” and “I’m sorry if I offended you, but I was just being real.” The conversation ended without resolution, but I want to make progress to prevent future blowups. What should I do?

Sincerely,
Confused Clergy

Dear Confused,

Let me share just a few tips that can help you get a fruitful conversation going.

Look Behind the Curtain of Action

When someone lashes out, it’s often because fear is lurking behind the curtain of their actions. Consider what your church member might be afraid of and how you might address her concern before it appears on stage.

You can encourage her to open up by sharing your good intentions at the beginning of your next conversation. This “good intention” shouldn’t be to change her (so she can give feedback more constructively), but to find mutual purpose and get results.

So, consider the ultimate result you are looking for. “I’d like to find a way for us to operate more as a team to create the best children’s ministry.” Or “I’d like to explore ways we can express feedback and disagreement—in a way where you feel heard and in a way the recipient can hear it—so we can continue to improve our children’s ministry.”

My favorite quote in Crucial Conversations captures this idea: “People don’t get defensive about what you’re saying. They get defensive because of why they think you are saying it.”

If you don’t share your good intentions up front, the other person is left to guess. Don’t give them the opportunity to guess wrong.

Build Team Trust

Given that this member gets angry with other members (and I’m guessing they in turn get angry with her), you may want to address trust and respect with your whole team.

Quaker peace activist Gene Knudson Hoffman said, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” While you may not be enemies, the point is the more we know about someone, the harder it is to dislike them—or send them angry emails.

Consider holding a meeting with several key members that work together. Acknowledge where trust could be stronger. Then, actively create space to build trust. Consider having each person share something personal—a challenge they overcame in their youth, for example. Such challenges often reveal windows into who people are as adults. Go first and model vulnerability. If the first person shares something surfacy, others will likely follow their lead.

To recap, look behind others’ actions to identify and remove potential fear. Stay focused on the ultimate goal and communicate it. And continue to build trust with your entire team. As we say in Crucial Conversations: “People can’t hear your content unless they trust your intent.” Address fear and build trust and you’ll have much less drama when new issues arise.

May your efforts going forward yield a new result.
Candace

Candace Headshot

Candace Bertotti

Candace is a VitalSmarts Senior Master Trainer, keynote speaker, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown Law, a mediator for DC Superior Court, and the President of Candid Communications.

2 thoughts on “What To Do When a Conversation Fails”

  1. Candace, I enjoyed your comments to “confused clergy” about how to deal with a church member who gave “angry” feedback about the children’s ministry. While your advice addressed some aspects of angry interactions, you did NOT address a reason some people get angry. Either they poorly regulate their emotions, OR they have found through past history that angry, forceful communications are more likely to result in change. Another word for this is “manipulation”, although most people that “get angry, and I just can’t help myself” would not characterize this behavior as manipulative, but rather as “emotional”. How do we re-train people to direct their energy toward clear, cooperative communication, instead of forceful, manipulative communication?

  2. How true! We cannot establish trust between ourselves and one other if the trust issue is broken at large – I very much appreciate your advice of reaching out to the whole group and sharing vulnerabilities to even the playing field in a trusting and accepting manner, as a foundation from which to begin rebuilding trust.

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