You are about to walk into a tough conversation where you must deliver hard news to someone, and you don’t expect that they will take it well. What do you do? Where to you start the conversation? How do you prepare?
Whether you are preparing for a conversation with a friend, partner, colleague, or client, walking into tough conversations is not for the faint of heart. How many of us have spent sleepless nights planning a tough conversation – or wishing we could avoid it? How often have we walked blindly into tricky topics with someone because we could not stomach preparing for the conversation we knew was coming? How often have we said the wrong thing or shut down during a conversation that has gone awry?
These questions are front and center in Credence’s Giving and Receiving Feedback workshop. It strikes me that life involves a lot of giving and receiving feedback, yet this is not something most are taught prior to adulthood. And, many would say that even after years of practice, giving and receiving feedback is tough.
Over the next year, I plan to explore several themes related to giving and receiving feedback in this newsletter. Today, our focus is delivering hard news well. Some months ago, I read the book, Listen, by Kathryn Mannix, a medical doctor in the UK. In her opening story, Mannix describes being a young doctor and needing to tell a woman that her husband died while in surgery. At the time, Mannix was a young doctor, inexperienced with delivering hard news. Mannix sat down and as kindly as possible, told the woman that her husband had died. To Mannix’s shock and dismay, the woman rose up, shouted and slapped Mannix hard across the face, leaving blood trailing down her cheek. Hearing the exchange, an experienced nurse joined the pair, and took over the conversation. Then, Mannix watched stunned as the nurse kindly and skillfully brought this woman to a place where she could receive the hard news about her husband’s death. What happened?
In conversation, we may know the required end point we need to reach, but how do we get there? As Mannix’s story reveals, if we start at the end point (in this case, the message that the woman’s husband has died), the news might be too startling for the person to receive. Instead, Mannix describes a principle of conversation that I have come to call, scaffolding. A scaffold is a construct builders use to help them reach a higher point on a building. Scaffolding a conversation involves moving step-by-step toward the hard message one must deliver. Critically, we root the scaffold in the heart of the other’s experience –beginning with them (not with ourselves). Just as importantly, we begin the conversation at the bottom of the scaffold, not at the top. We go back to the beginning and work our way up from there toward the hard news we are seeking to deliver. What has been their experience prior to the “end point” we are trying to get to? What did they know already? What actions have they taken? What were their intentions behind their actions? What impact did their actions have? What were their hopes and fears? Scaffolding involves meeting people where they are at, coming alongside them, and walking together through the thicket of tough experiences to the place where together we and they can encounter the tough news we need to address.
Scaffolding is an artful form of conversation that has countless applications. When I teach people to coach or to mediate, for example, we spend time learning to scaffold conversations. It remains one of the toughest yet critical skills for those hoping to work in these tender environments. Scaffolding in these settings involves building step-by-step toward a tough question. If offered without a scaffold, a tough question is hard to receive and can feel like an accusation. Instead, scaffolding involves meeting parties where they are at, honouring their lived experiences, and then tenderly inviting deeper conversations to emerge by asking increasingly insightful questions that build on one another.
One of the challenging things about using scaffolding in conversation, is that one builds the scaffold as one is climbing it. This means that our scaffold might need to take detours or side routes as we respond meaningfully to the information shared by our conversation partner. Indeed, when we look at our scaffold in retrospect, it may look precarious. If done well, however, the precarious scaffold will paint a beautiful picture of the surprising and meaningful twists and turns our conversation took on the way to building a new understanding.
A scaffolded conversation is a kind conversation. By meeting people where they are at, scaffolded conversations result in a true dialogue partnership where people walk together to reach an outcome. Scaffolded conversations also promise clarity. By climbing the scaffold together, hard news and tough questions are much easier to deliver because the parties are mutually discovering the wisdom each has to offer.
- Go back to the “beginning” and start there, using paraphrases and open-ended questions to support the conversation. What did the person know already? What actions did they take? What did they fear or hope for?
- Build the narrative together as you learn about how the person got from the beginning to where they are now.
- Be responsive to what the person shares. Your questions may need to take unexpected turns based on new information you have just learned.
- Allow your questions to build on one another until they land naturally at the hard question you are hoping to ask or at the hard news you need to share.
- Ensure throughout that you are maintaining a spirit of goodwill and connection with the other person.