The Power of Softened Start-Up
Leaders often have to have difficult conversations. A direct report may be underperforming. You may have a serious disagreement with a peer regarding the direction of an important project. Most of us dread these types of conversations. We avoid them as long as possible, hoping that perhaps things will get better without the need to address the issue head on. Of course, that rarely happens, and we have no choice but to face the conflict.
So how do we make sure these conversations go well? How do we address the issue but also maintain our working relationship with the other party?
The answer...softened start-up. John Gottman, one of the country's most preeminent researchers on couple relationships, has discovered that the emotional tone of a conversation rarely changes from how it started. If a conversation begins with criticism and defensiveness, it remains critical and defensive. If it begins with empathy, you can maintain a positive tone, despite needing to deliver difficult news or express disagreement.
Before initiating a potentially conflictual conversation at work, think about how you can control the outcome of the conversation with a soft start-up. If speaking with a direct report about performance issues, perhaps you can say, "I know how difficult it can be to hear negative feedback about performance, but as your supervisor, I want to be honest with you about the issues I'm observing." Rather than saying to a peer in a harsh, critical tone, "Listen, I completely disagree with your ideas about this project. I think they are way off base," perhaps you can say, "I know you've invested a lot in this project, and I respect the expertise you bring to the table. However, I think we should consider other options in order to meet our objectives."
Using softened start-up provides leaders with power over the process of a conversation. The emotional tone of that process often predicts whether the outcome will be positive or negative.