When I ask clients why they let a problem go on for so long before addressing it, a common reply is, “I was afraid I’d create more conflict by raising it.” It’s an understandable fear. Here are some tried-and-true ways to raise an issue for discussion without making matters worse, along with additional tips for mediators and managers.
When we have a concern about someone else’s behavior, we weigh in our minds whether it’s worth the effort to raise it: Will they push back and things will get uncomfortable? Could a delicate peace with them get shattered? Will they think badly of me? Will they hold a grudge? Will it make any difference anyway?
These are reasonable questions to wonder about. They’re also the stuff of ruminating, chewing over our worries for so long we lure ourselves into inaction. For recurring or frustrating problems, inaction doesn’t work very well.
The soft start
A great alternative to endless rumination is raising a concern with a soft start.
Here’s an example of a hard start: “Stop interrupting me.”
And an example of a soft start: “I’d really like to finish my thought before you respond. Thanks for hanging on just a moment more.”
Soft starts are usually described as gentler — though no less direct — word choice, as in the above example.
But another type of soft start is the strategic soft start, where you choose a specific a method for raising an issue in ways that reduce the chance of immediate defensiveness or out-of-hand dismissal.
Here are three of my favorites strategic soft starts:
1. Say what you’re seeing and check it out
This soft start strategy uses a non-judgmental transparency about what you’re noticing. The following two-part phrase is very useful:
“Here’s what I’m noticing” is a simple, straightforward, yet considerate way to be transparent about what’s on your mind. Done in an amiable tone, it doesn’t come across like a statement of fact or diagnosis, but instead as something you’re wondering out loud and willing to be disproved.
“Here’s what I’m wondering” is the natural extension of what you’re noticing. The best kind of wondering with this strategy is wondering what’s going on for them or wondering if you’ve missed (or misunderstood) something, or wondering how you can help.
Here’s an example: “I’m noticing that several deadlines have slipped by recently. I’m wondering if everything’s ok for you…?”
For more on this soft start strategy, see How to confront someone without being confrontational. And by the way, this strategic soft start will also help you avoid the traps of confirmation bias and reflexive loops.
2. Describe your experience instead of your interpretation.
When you lead with your conclusion about them, you set yourself up for push-back. If your conclusion is wrong, they will naturally push back to prove it. If your conclusion hits close to the mark, they may still push back to protect themselves.
When you lead with your experience, though, you speak only about yourself in relation to them, instead of about them. Public radio host Krista Tippett describes the benefit well:
When you lead with your conclusion, it usually goes something like this: “You’re so critical all the time.”
When you lead with your experience, though, your strategic soft start is much more apparent: “I’ve been feeling criticized a lot lately and I’m afraid it’s making me pull away from you. I don’t want that.”
3. Communicate impact instead of intention
When you conflate impact and intention, the concern you’re trying to raise is likely to get tangled in their defensiveness.
Conflating impact and intention means to assume that one necessarily explains the other. Bad impact on you? Must have been bad intention on their part. Good intention on your part? Then let’s dismiss the bad impact on them.
When you conflate impact and intention, it usually sounds something like this: “You must really enjoy making me do two jobs while you drift in late every morning.”
When you communicate the impact only, as a strategic soft start, it sounds something like this: “It’s getting really difficult to do my job well when I’m also trying to pinch-hit for you.”
For more on impact and intention, see Benign intentions don’t cancel bad impact.
Helping others use strategic soft starts
If you’re a mediator or manager, you have the everyday task of helping others raise their concerns in productive, constructive ways. The three strategic soft starts I’ve just described are really helpful with this task if you employ them in a coaching capacity.
On the fly, you can coach your client or employee to reconstruct their sentence more effectively. For example, if someone says to someone else, “How many times have I asked you not to interrupt me?” you can step in with, “What’s the impact on you when they interrupt?”
In advance of sitting down with two more more conflicting clients or employees, you can speak with them and help them consider how to raise their concerns constructively. I might ask each client privately, “How will you raise this with them when we’re all together? Tell me how you’ll say it.” or “Pretend I’m them. Tell me what’s on your mind.” If I hear a very hard start, I will often describe the difference between a hard and soft start, the downsides of a hard start, and suggest a soft start strategy that makes sense for their particular concern. Then I’ll give them a chance to practice it. To be balanced, I will repeat this process with each person involved in the mediation.
Note for professional mediators: I recognize that not all professional mediators use pre-mediation in this way and may even practice in settings that prohibit it (too bad for you). But if you work in mediation arenas in which people will be in ongoing relationship once you’re done, this kind of advance coaching is powerful stuff for helping people bring their best to the table.