Tools for difficult conversations

Aug. 1, 2004
Don't you just hate it when everybody gets emotional?! Forty years ago, The Human Side of Enterprise told us that workplace emotions are powerful elements of organizational life...

Bob Frazer Jr., DDS

Don't you just hate it when everybody gets emotional?! Forty years ago, The Human Side of Enterprise told us that workplace emotions are powerful elements of organizational life, which generally must be expressed and acknowledged before real progress can be made. McGregor stated, "Leaders and managers are particularly vulnerable to emotional (sometimes unconscious) reactions which were never adequately reckoned with and interfere with people's perception of reality." He believed that when leaders were inhospitable to the expression of emotions, "a dissonant underground world where feelings were guiltily bootlegged in or, worse yet, unwittingly subverted important decisions" would emerge.

We label feelings that drive climate in a positive direction as resonant. Those that drive climate negatively are termed dissonant. Most of us learned how to handle emotions as children from our families ... primarily from our parents, who, in turn, learned from their parents. Best-selling author John Bradshaw believes that most families have dysfunctional emotional behavior. Sometimes, it is relatively benign, such as the inability to handle conflict without profanity and tears, and sometimes malignant, as in the case of addiction and violence.

Experts in the field of family systems therapy believe that to correct dysfunctional behavior in a family, you must treat the entire family. A family member who continually acts dysfunctionally is the symptom, while the family is the patient. I believe this can be said of many dental office families. It's often the rules of engagement around emotions and conflict that are dysfunctional and keep us from making progress.

There are also gender differences. Dr. John Gottman discovered that males have a strong physiological reaction to emotional conflict, yet females (when no threat of physical abuse exists) remain largely undisturbed. On the other hand, females have a strong physiological response when not listened to or ignored. Gottman's study of marriages that failed found what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

* Personalized criticism — Criticizing the person, not the actions. Even though it often seems richly deserved, it's counterproductive!

* Contempt — This can seem natural when frustration and distrust grow strong.

* Defensiveness — The habitually defensive person is in the lonely position of being the only person who doesn't understand what troubles his or her loved ones or workmates about her.

* Stonewalling — Shutting yourself off from emotionally meaningful (if not all) communication about what others consider important.

The Four Horsemen are just as valid in dental practices, and should be avoided! What follows are some new, resonant, and highly productive rules of engagement and positive ways of dealing with conflict. It is the role of the leader to establish the rules of engagement (what is OK and not OK when there is conflict). The most powerful way the leader does this is by modeling.

When you need to have a difficult conversation, observe Woodburn's first rule:"Do not take responsibility for both sides of the conversation!" I used to violate this rule often by thinking through my confrontations from both points of view. "Well, if I say this, then she will feel ______, and then she is likely to say ________. Then I will say _____." Enough already!

It is hard enough to stay in your own head, so for heaven's sake, stay out of the other person's head! Now I try to approach the conversation from my side only and wait to see and hear how the other person responds before deciding what I'll say.

When you must have a difficult conversation, follow these guidelines:

1) Negotiate a time and a place.
2) Don't accept unsatisfactory conditions.
3) Speak in the first person: "I have a problem that I need your help with."
4) Expect resistance and manage it; don't be offended by it!
5) Be certain that you are heard — it is your responsibility to ensure what you meant was heard. It can be helpful to ask your staff and patients to tell you what they think you said, just to be sure you were clear.
6) Plan a follow-up time to revisit and see how you are progressing.

Dr. Bob Frazer, Jr., FACD, FICD, is founder of R.L. Frazer & Assoc., whose custom programs help dentists achieve top 5 percent status in financial achievement and life balance (fulfillment and significance). Thirty years of quality practice and superb communication skills have propelled him to a 28-year international speaking career. For information on his acclaimed Strategic Planning Retreat 10/20-23 and E.I. Workshop 10/28-30 or to receive "7 Ways to Grow Your E.Q.," contact him at (512) 346-0455, fax (512) 346-1071, or email him at [email protected]. Visit his Web site at

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