By Caroline Webb
Whenever we’re working closely with other people, it’s easy for tensions to arise thanks to differences in personal styles and priorities. When they do, we have a choice: should we raise the issue, or keep quiet? Many of us bite our tongue, worrying that speaking up will harm an important relationship.
But research suggests that letting something simmer can make things worse, for several reasons. When we’re stressed, our brain tends to mount a defensive “fight-flight-or-freeze” response—during which there’s reduced activity in brain areas. And trying to suppress our irritation has been found to make our brain’s defensive response more pronounced rather than less. So chanting “I’m fine” repeatedly is unlikely to get us back onto an even keel.
Our supposedly hidden emotions are also strangely contagious. Psychologists have foundthat one person in a negative mood transmits their angst to others nearby within five minutes—even when they aren’t speaking to each other or working together. So your colleague will be subconsciously picking up your disapproving signals, whether you mean for them to read your mind or not.
The good news is that there is a safe way to raise difficult issues with a colleague, even in awkward hierarchical situations—one that helps to keep both your brains from going on the defensive and that helps you set a positive tone for the conversation. Here’s how it works:
Step 0: Set a collaborative intention. Before the conversation, ask yourself: “What outcome do I really want for my relationship with this person?”
Early in my career, I had a boss who kept rewriting my work. Sometimes he twisted the syntax so badly that the sentences became difficult to understand, and his micromanagement was making me feel like a sulky teenager. I felt I had to say something. Without pausing to think about my intention for the conversation, my unspoken goal would have been: “make [damn] sure he realizes he’s driving me nuts!” That would have kept my brain firmly in “fight” mode. But five seconds of reflection led me to set a more collegiate goal: “find out why he’s doing what he’s doing, and figure out how to work together more effectively.” If emotions are contagious, that was going to be a much better vibe to radiate.
Step 1: Ask permission. Don’t just launch into your spiel. Say something like: “Our working relationship is important to me, and there’s something on my mind—can I talk to you about it?” If it’s a bad time, you don’t want to choose this moment for your chat; if it’s a good time, you’ve signaled your collaborative intent.
Step 2: Describe the “true facts.” The trick here is to pick one specific incident and describe what I call the “true facts”: the things you know for sure, stripped of emotion, interpretation, or generalization. For me, that meant not saying things like “Your edits suck” or “You’re not giving me enough space.” These statements are debatable, because the other person can say “That’s not true.” And because they’re so broadly critical, they’re more likely to put your colleague’s brain on the defensive—meaning they won’t be at their most expansive and generous as they respond. Instead, aim for something that feels more like “What I noticed was [fact, fact, fact].” Be as precise and concrete as you can, even if you think there’s a big issue at stake. In my case, I said: “I noticed that in the last presentation, you rewrote the headings on fourteen of the twenty slides. The sentences got longer and less to-the-point.”
Step 3: Say how the “true facts” made you feel, and why this matters to you. Just like the “true facts,” your feelings aren’t disputable, and describing them explains why you’re raising the issue. Research has also found that you lower your stress levels when you carefully label your emotions. So I said: “That made me feel worried that I’m not understanding what you want from me.” Here, it helps not to use aggressive language. I was angry, for sure—but when I asked myself what deeper fear was underneath that anger, I realized it was a genuine worry that I was falling short. It also helps to add a sincere explanation of why this matters to you, to convey that this isn’t about you whining. It doesn’t have to be complicated. I simply said: “And I care about doing a good job.”
Step 4: Ask for their perspective. When we’ve built up our courage to broach a difficult topic, it’s easy to forget that we may not have the whole picture. In fact, we rarely do; we all suffer from a phenomenon known to scientists as “selective attention.” So make sure to ask: “What’s your perspective on this?” Pay real attention to their answer, even if you disagree. The idea is to understand what lies behind their behavior, to give you a better idea of how to solve the problem. In my case, it became clear that my manager’s goal had been to add what he called “more nuance” to my rather black-and-white messages. He wasn’t a skilled writer, so his edits weren’t very effective. But once I understood his aim, I could better see how to meet both his needs and mine.
Step 5: Do some joint problem solving. Finally, decide together how to improve the situation. Try asking them for their thoughts on this first, before building on their suggestions. This isn’t about caving in to hierarchy; it’s because research shows that people feel far more attachment to any idea that they’ve had a hand in shaping. So before I said “okay, here’s what I’ll do differently in the future, and here’s how I’d like to get input from you,” it paid dividends for me to ask: “what can I do to introduce more of the subtlety you’re missing?”
The upshot? Things got better. I didn’t get fired. And time and again over the years, I’ve seen this feedback technique provide a secure path through even the most challenging conversations—in one case, when a CEO needed to stop his Chairman from undermining his decisions; in another, when a high-ranking executive in the Middle East needed to call out dysfunctional behavior in her patriarchal boss. And several of my clients vouch for its effectiveness in the toughest arena of all: conversations with actual sulky teenagers.