Workplace Dynamics

Things To Do Before, Or Instead Of, Mediation

In the latest in a series of articles aimed at putting myself out of business this one could be sub-titled “Have You Told Your People What You Want Them To Do?”

Well who wants to be rich anyway!? Over the last 6 months I have found myself in a couple of awkward situations around mediation. This is not awkward in terms of the conflict, happy to deal with that, but awkward in gradual awakening that mediation has not been the right solution to the challenge the company or department I am working with.

The first example was a team mediation event involving 30 colleagues where there had been factionalism, back biting and formal complaints. As we worked through the session it dawned on me that, although the team leaders were present, we just weren’t hearing from them. During a break I told the team leader group that I would like to hear their views about how these people should work together in the future. After the break, the same, nothing. In the washup after the team had left I asked the Team Leaders about this and it seemed that they didn’t know. Yes, they didn’t know – or couldn’t articulate – how they wanted their reports to behave towards each other!

The second example involved me turning down some work for the same reasons. The HR department were presenting the need in terms of relationships between two managers in the line but when I asked what the organisation considered important in terms of management, no-one could give me an answer. They didn’t know. They had a first line manager who was completely process-driven, aloof and was apparently reluctant to spend anytime with their staff. This person wasn’t doing their job but nobody was able to articulate what was important about the management role.

Mediation may have helped a bit but the crisis was one of leadership and at two levels, knowing what is important and secondly articulating it. Mediation is a great tool like a high quality, dropped-forged wrench. However it’s not much cop if really you need a screwdriver.







Difficult Conversations – Bringing the Knowledge Together

Early in 2017 I ran a ten week online course entitled “Holding Difficult Conversations”. There were 27 participants and it went down very well! I want to make sure that everyone can make teh most of this learning so I am putting everything together here.

Week 1:          What Do You Really Want?

This first week looked at the notion of the “mindful pause” to help take a moment to consider what we really want in engaging in Difficult Conversations. Your article is here and your audio commentary presentation is here.

Week 2:         Managing Thoughts About Others

Difficult Conversations often involve developing strong feelings about the people we are dealing with, this is often not helpful! Read more here and hear/see more here

Week 3:          Managing Thoughts About Ourselves

Thoughts of our own success or failure feature greatly when we reflect on Difficult Conversations – learn more on how to manage this in your article here and listen to what I have to say here

Week 4:          Setting up the Best Environmental Context

Getting the space right when dealing with challenging conversations is crucial – find out in the article here and presentation here

Week 5:          Zero Sum Game – We Both Win

Find out more about seeking win-win solutions here

Week 6:          Keeping Yourself Safe

It’s very difficult to confidently dealing with Difficult Conversations if we don’t feel safe – here are some thoughts and a presentation here

Week 7:          Using Your Body

Our control over our body language is crucial – learn to use your shows to the best effect! The article is here and the presentation here.

Week 8:          Separating Positions from Needs and Interests

Understanding that the positions that people bring to an argument, may not be the best place for you to start understanding them, use “respectful inquiry” to help them talk about their unmet needs – here’s the article and here’s the presentation.

Week 9:          “Abuse” and Other Labels

My experience is that people often use labels to identify how they feel – this can get in the way of a fruitful conversation. Read the article here and look/listen to the presentation here

Week 10:        Learning from This and Other Experiences

It’s great to have a chance to read articles and watch presentations on a subject in which you are interested – but how do you help this to change the way you Hold Difficult Conversations in the future? Read how here.

Thanks everyone – do get in touch if you’d like to find out more





Learning From This Experience

Now in our final week we turn to bringing the learning together. I am inspired in writing this by an experience where I commissioned a highly successful and inspiring two-day course for a group of staff in a public sector organisation. The course was so well received that the participants leapt to their feet at the end of the second day and spontaneously applauded the presenter. Basking in his reflective glow, having been responsible for bringing him along, I turned to the person next to me who smiled back at me. Whilst continuing to applaud, she said…..

“That was absolutely brilliant! But it won’t work around here..”

And you know what? She was right. The training course, for all it’s useful skills and techniques, made no discernible difference to how people behaved. They just carried on doing what they had been doing anyway.

So What’s It All About?

I do hope that you have enjoyed this course. I do hope that you have found some of the ideas useful, inspiring even! I hope that you have found my style attractive, and – given that one purpose of doing this was to advertise my wares – I hope that you’ll consider me for work in your organisation in the future! But no, that’s not what it is all about.

What it’s all about is change. I could dress that up and say it’s about “development”, but actually what I really mean is change. To stop doing some of things you were doing. To stop some things that you were thinking even. To do something different. To change how we are with other people, when we have had a lifetime of doing something differently. That’s hard.

Change, Self Image and the Emotions

Everywhere I go I seem to see people bumping into each other, having negative unhappy experiences of other human beings. My lovely neighbours falling out about a planned house extension, never built, but the tension remains. Football fans returning from a promotion celebration jostling each other, mis-reading cues, metaphorically and literally treading on each others toes. Road rage everywhere! It’s heartbreaking!

In many ways, we use other people as mirror images of ourselves. What we see in their faces, we feel in our hearts. The imagined anger, resentment, disdain we divine in another’s countenance is felt as a wounding attack on who we are. No wonder it’s so painful!

Learning to have better difficult conversations is more than just learning some new skills. It’s about making some more fundamental changes in our view of ourselves. Bringing a more kindly, confident and more open approach to the world, and to ourselves.

Noticing Signs of Change

Forcing ourselves to change can be really useful – eating more healthily or making sure we include some exercise in our daily routine can be a great way to make some of the changes you want to see. Given that this change area is particularly difficult, I like to include the idea of “noticing”.

Noticing is bringing our attention to a particular part of our experience of life, in this case, how we are able to connect better with people with whom we are having difficulties. I would agree with the notion that we progress in the direction in which we inquire. If I spend the day noticing how well I’m able to work alongside others – negotiating, agreeing, managing differences of opinion – there is a strong chance that, at the end of that day, I will feel so much more able to continue to do the same the following day.

For a contrary experience, but using the same process of expiring the world, we all know those individuals who fall out with everybody. They are full of stories how so-and-so is incompetent and rude. Everywhere they go they meet horrible people, or at least people who turn out to be horrible. Their world is the same as ours – they have just developed the habit of noticing things that displease them. Why be that person? It sounds like hard work.

Listing and Describing

The practice of “noticing” can be either 1) largely passive, smiling to yourself as you are aware of the impact you are making or 2) more active, a deliberate attempt to chronicle these small changes that mean that you are making progress.

It helps here if you are a “list person” but you may have lots of otherwise of exploring and recording your life experience. Sit with a pen and some paper, if that’s for you and make a list of everything that’s happened recently that tells you that you are becoming more competent and confident in managing difficult conversations. Flick back over the last ten weeks of this course if that helps. As yourself the question “what else?”, in order to generate more thoughts. And dig further, don’t be content with “good meeting” what did you notice yourself doing that helped. What might other people have noticed about you? What else, what else? Make it a habit to notice of the small improvements you make.

Reflective Exercise

  • Think back – what are your experiences over the last week or so that have shown your ability in having difficult conversations?

  • What have you been most pleased to notice about the way in which you are developing good relationships, in work and out

  • What else? What else? What else?

  • You know the drill by now…


Thanks for staying with me everyone, all the way right through to the end. Many thanks. Phil

“Abuse” and Other Labels

My original intention was to write about how we could manage being on the receiving end of abuse whilst having difficult conversations. However something happened this week that has encouraged me to take a different look at the word abuse and how labelling behaviour – such as “abuse” – can get in the way of profitable conversations. I’m hope that there has been plenty of food for thought in the earlier section on “Keeping Yourself Safe” to help in those horrible moments when we are attacked whilst having difficult conversations.

Firstly I’d like to issue a health warning. Abuse has come to mean something in our society, helping us to identify dangerous and damaging behaviour from which the recipients deserve protection and help to recover. I am particularly referring to Domestic Abuse and Child Abuse. I am not expecting the men, women and children who have suffered such abuse to defend that label to me. They have called it and I hope that they get the support and protection they deserve.

Under stress people often find it hard to articulate their experience. They may be embarrassed to be asking for something they want and may experience some social awkwardness due to exposing themselves and their feelings in front of another person. In week eight we looked at how these often are expressed as positions. This week we’ll look at labels as a specific, and often more powerful form of position

In this article I’d like to draw on a recent experience to discuss the challenge that arises when unwanted behaviour is labelled rather than described.

How labelling can muck things up even more

This week I was supporting a team at a call centre in the midlands. I had been brought in to help develop even more successful work relationships in what had been described as a highly effective team. It hadn’t been my intention to uncover any unhappy experiences between the colleagues but that’s just what happened. One woman had claimed that she had a difficult phone call with one of her colleagues over the matter of changing their shift patterns. The first woman had described how the second had repeatedly asked her the same question in a sharp aggressive manner. The second woman had appeared shocked at this, but once she regained her composure, had really listened to her colleague’s complaints and began to apologise, saying that she was sorry that she’d come across like that. All was on course for a successful resolution when the first women said – “You abused me”.

This seemed to derail things considerably. Whilst a moment before the second person had been listening intently with considerably show of empathy, on hearing the allegations of being “abusive” she railed up and forcefully rebutted this suggestion. Things quickly began to get heated with the second woman claiming that the first had defamed her (another label). Suddenly I had my work cut out!

The practical and ethical challenges of labelling (rather then describing) behaviour

When faced with a label such as abuse, cruelty, exploitation, manipulation it can be hard to ignore what has been just said. These terms “up the ante” considerably, in effect it’s like throwing a grenade into a conversation. Of course whenever we are involved in a difficult conversation, we must keep personal safety a priority. If someone says that they have being abused, we must be prepared to check that the behaviour they are exposed to does not break any laws, agency policies or put anyone at risk.

If we are satisfied that people aren’t in danger then we have to return to the label, responding in a way similar to the way you would to a position. For example if you are in a one-to-one situation – “I’m sorry that you feel so badly treated, could you tell me what I/he/she/they did that left you feeling that way?”.

However if you are mediating between people, you have the second person now responding to the label and not the behaviour. Even if the second party agrees that, yes indeed, they have done the behaviour of which they have been accused, they may not agree that it constitutes the label. The first party, once they have used the label, won’t easily want to deny it and indeed we risk alienating them if we encourage them to do so.

Naming the Game

It’s seems perverse but sometimes we have to name the problems before we can start working on the solutions. What I managed to do in the situation above was partially successful and I would do it again – I’m always keen to hear alternative ideas though!

I summarised the situation as far as I saw it, empathetically and without judgement, stating that person A said that they had been abused and person B didn’t agree with that term. I asked them both if they would mind if we all set that term aside for a moment so we could talk about the behaviour which led person A to label it so. I could see that both parties were only partially convinced, but thought I’d “bat” on in the hope of progress!

Circular Questions

When we are feeling a bit stuck in a conversation such as this one, when we seem to be talking about the same things repeatedly I use circular questions to try to elicit more value from the same situation – for example…

  • (to person A) so how did that leave you feeling?
  • “I felt attacked, really got at and upset”
  • (to person B) what’s it like to hear A say that they felt so upset?
  • “well I was cross myself, I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, only to make sure she’d heard me”
  • (to person A) what’s it like to hear that B didn’t actually want to hurt your feelings?
  • “well I’m glad but she still shouldn’t have talked to me that way”
  • (to person B) what was in your mind that made you want to make sure that B was listening?
  • “I was frustrated as we’d talked about this before and things hadn’t got any better”
  • (to person A) I guess you can hear that B felt frustrated and wanted things to be better – what’s your response to the way she felt?

You’ll notice that I am asking each party to respond to the other party’s feelings – this is not about what happened, which is open to interpretation, and certainly not the label. It’s about perceptions and emotional responses.

Reflective Exercise

  • Work hard to notice labels in the coming week – they don’t need to be negative – it could be such words as supportive, comforting, enabling – what happened to lead behaviour to labelled thus?
  • Notice when you slip into using a label yourself, be prepared to describe what you see of what you want to see
  • Notice when others use a label, ask them what they mean, what behaviour lies behind the label

Positions and Needs – Using Respectful Inquiry

This is a very interesting aspect of having difficult conversations with people when they are cross and argumentative. In such a context, people are often spouting their positions – demands often – that tend to raise the temperature of the difference between you.

As we know, being in conflict is highly stressful. It is a fairly common process that people get up a “head of steam” before speaking. They gather their feelings, beliefs – prejudices even – and let fly with invective that they feel best represents where they are in terms of their experience of the situation.

This is often part of the human experience and may be quite understandable. What can really help is to know what to do and perhaps more importantly what not to do when facing such an experience. In this article, we’ll be looking at these positions, what needs may lie behind them and how we can use a respectful inquiry to take the conversation onto more fertile ground.


Positions are often the carapace that people take on in difficult conversations. Here are some examples of such positions

  • You never listen to me!
  • Support staff are always last in line to be asked
  • Don’t worry, I’m used to feeling like the poor relation!

The temptation when you faced with such positions is to respond directly back to the position – indeed in many circumstances, using the actual words used by the other person is very useful – however in these circumstances it can lead you down an alley of no return. Let’s consider the first example…

Them:             You never listen to me!

You:                Yes I do!

Them:             No you don’t!

You:                I listened to you this morning when you told me about that film

Them:             Not really….

You:                Yes I did!

Them:             No you didn’t!

You:                But I did, you told me that guy you like was in it

Them:             You never listen to anything important

You:                Yes I do

You get the picture, its basically an “yes I did, no you didn’t” type of contradictory argument. The art here is to step away from the front line of this conversation to think what unmet needs might lie beyond the expression…”You never listen to me”…

Focusing on “Needs”

When faced with positions, it’s quite normal to respond to what is being said, often by contradicting the statement as above. However we rarely talk someone out of their position by responding directly to it, we risk that table-tennis, back and forth, yes you did, now I didn’t exchange.

Take the second example above – “Support staff are always last in line to be asked”. We might respond by reminding the speaker that they had the chance to raise their issue in the last staff survey. This may stop them in their tracks but maybe also send them away grumbling. So let’s ask ourselves – what unmet need may lie behind the statement? A simple – but compelling – need may be that they would like to be consulted more. If we are really interested in an engaged staff group, we may wish to explore this, but if the speaker repeats their initial statement, it could be very difficult to further the conversation. This is where respectful inquiry comes in.

Respectful Inquiry

One way of helping to get around this is to do some respectful guessing about what might lay beyond the position, what might be the unmet need that has caused the person to express themselves using that position.

Key to success here is that the inquiry is respectful and acknowledges that the other person is an expert on their experience, not you. The nightmare scenario here is the other person says something like “Don’t worry, I’m used to feeling like the poor relation!” and you respond triumphantly “Ahh I know what’s wrong with you, you don’t like being moved into the annex!”

You may be right of course, unfortunately people really hate being told what is wrong with them. You may have more luck utilising a genuine, respectful inquiring approach like “I hope that you don’t mind me asking but I wonder if you are feeling a bit apart from the rest of the company?”

Again you may be right or wrong. The hope here is to open out the conversation and take it away from the yes/no bouncing ball and onto a more constructive dialogue area. The other person may agree that they feel apart or demure and tell you it’s something else – the intention is to move away from the position into what may really be going on.

Now of course, it may not work at all. They may question your genuineness or maybe their position is so entrenched that you’ll have to do lots more listening. Maybe nothing will work! As I have said in earlier articles, all we can do is use the tools at our disposal to try to get a better outcome for the people we work with.

An example….

A couple of years ago my wife and I were on a group holiday with my son who was 16 at the time. It was an activity holiday with strenuous days and time to relax in the evening. One of the other members of the group was a man travelling alone who had told us that he had a son of a similar age to my boy. One evening my son was trying to convince this man that computer gaming was a valuable pastime. The guy was responding angrily, saying that they were a waste of time and should be banned. My son countered saying how creative and imaginative they were. The man was becoming increasingly agitated and I too was becoming concerned that he was being rather hard on my teenage son. Before interjecting I had a quick think about what kind of unmet need this man had to behave and speak in such a way. Then it dawned on me! “I’m wondering” I said, “if you may be a bit worried about your son and all the time he spends playing on the computer?”. I had struck lucky but it was evident by the tension that went from his face and body that that was indeed the case. I was then able to empathise with him and even my son joined in listen with concern as he talk about his son being isolated from classmates.

Reflective Exercise

A simple one this week. Just think back to difficult conversation and identify the positions that people were using and consider what unmet need lay behind them. You may also want to notice this phenomena in the conversations you have this week.

Phil Jones. April 2017










Using Your Body

Oh no we all shout, not only must think about what we say, how we say it and now what we’re doing with our bodies whilst we are having difficult conversations? It’s a swine isn’t it?

A few weeks back I referenced Albert Mehrabian and his work in what conveys attitudes in communication. Yes his work is subject to critique, however I think that we’d all accept that our bodies play a considerable part in how we communicate. Click here for a reminder of Mr Merhabian’s work. In this article I’m going to point us at a few areas that will help us use our bodies in a way that works for us.

It’s important to remember two important things relating to communication. Firstly that “we can’t not communicate” and secondly that “nature abhors a vacuum”. As soon as people clap eyes on us their brains start to construct stories based on age, gender, dress and a multitude of other factors. When we speak, what we say and how we say it is incorporated within the ideas that they have started to construct. What we may want to convey may not what we wish – it’s a nightmare and very difficult to control! All we can do is the best we can to manage our bodies in a way that confirms our voice messages.

  • Signify Your Intention With Your Shoes

We all know the scenario – we find ourselves cornered into a conversation we don’t want to have. We know that we should concentrate, pay the other person the attention that they may deserve, but we may want to be elsewhere. The chances are our body (and our mind) are heading for the door but we know that if we listen to this person we may get a good outcome for them, for us and for whatever context we are in. In such a scenario I am a believer of signifying my intention with my shoes! Look down. Where are your shoes pointing? I am going to take a wild guess and say that they are pointing towards the door. Pick ‘em up and turn them to point towards the individual to whom you are speaking. Now you can give them your full intention. It sounds daft but do try it!

  • Matching and Mirroring with Care

I’m guessing we all know the theory here. When we are comfortable with someone we often find ourselves arranging our bodies in a similar fashion. The theory is that by mirroring, copying, the body positioning of the person we are having the (difficult) conversation with and a more harmonious or connected conversation will ensue. Also if someone is waving their arms around in a agitated fashion, this theory suggests that a more sober reflection of these gestures, let’s say my moving our hands to the same rhythm, may be more useful than a totally passive approach.

This seems like useful information to me and I might just allow myself to notice how I’m positioned and make a subtle shift to suggest a connection. I know that the Nuero-Linguistic Programming people believe that this is magic and maybe they are right. I prefer to think that it’s just something that might help.

  • Minding My Body Language Whilst Not Evaluating Others

It goes without saying that it’s a good idea to be careful with your body – especially if you are worried that you may be behaving in such a way as to promote confusion of mis-communication. You may also be aware of your body positioning too. After all, you posses the kind of communication expertise and recognise the need to take small steps to improve what you do.

However there are some commonly held ideas relating to the meaning of certain types of body language. For example what does it mean when people like noticeably less eye contact than you – or noticeably more? What does it mean when people fold their arms when you are talking about them? The chances are that our responses to such question include “shifty,” “lying”, “weird”, “defensive”. I would prefer to be mindful of such judgements. Cultures differ as do people’s behaviour and sometimes folding your arms means I’m comfortable that way.

In a sentence, be careful of people’s judgements of your body language but don’t rush to make judgements of others.

Reflective Exercise

  • do the thing with the shoes. You know you want to 😉
  • just notice what your body is doing when you’re talking to another person. You don’t need to change it, just notice it
  • ask a colleague or a friend to notice you talking to someone (not them) ask them to describe what they saw. Take care with any evaluation about your body language, it’s the descriptions you want

Keeping Yourself Safe

Being safe from harm is pretty much a perquisite for doing the kind of difficult work that we are talking about on this course. In fact, if we find ourselves at risk of serious harm our responsibility should be to ourselves and put a healthy distance between us, and those who may do us ill, a soon as conceivably possible. You may have been on a course but if they have a knife, a dog, a threatening manner of any kind or indeed if there are any other indicators of serious harm, we probably get out of the situation.

Most of us are lucky enough not to frequently confront violence and I’m glad about that. However if we are in roles where challenging conversations are the norm, we may need to be aware of the possibility of dangerous behaviour. Some of this we may consider “common sense” but its surprising how much our attitudes to violence are part of our prior life experiences and ideas of who we are. Some of this may be helpful but we probably need to make ourselves more consciously aware of our approaches to keeping ourselves, and others, safe.

Rules, Regulations and Responsibilities

I’m one of those irritating people who believe that Health and Safety regulations are good things. My first job was in an open cast coal mine and life-changing accidents, occasionally fatal, were all too frequent occurrences. There was a macho approach to safety and rules were sneered at. Organisations have a responsibility to help keep us safe and we need to make ourselves aware of these arrangements and shout out if they are not in place or our being flouted. In my first social work job I was unlucky enough to be present when my line manager was taken hostage. He was released physically unscathed but sadly never returned to work. We were a child protection team, all of which held a caseload of often very angry people. We had timidly complained for some time about the lack of security at the office entrance. Of course after this incident the builders moved in an we were given all the necessary security measures, however it was too late for that one individual.

I’m suggesting that we all find out what the arrangements are and stick to them. Make them part of the conversation in the workplace, do they work? Are they helping us relate to our customers, our service users? Encourage your colleagues to speak out those difficult and dangerous elements of the job and the measures put in place to keep us safe.

Repeat after me. Health and Safety IS cool.

Being Good at Difficult Conversations May Put us at Greater Risk

A 2016 study by the University of Bristol highlighted something interesting about safety equipment. People who road their bicycles wearing a helmet were more likely to take risks when out on their bikes. This response is called “risk compensation” and indicates that certain sorts of safety initiatives may cause people to actually take a higher level of risk. One of the indicators of receiving a knife injury is actually going out with a knife. It’s not such a huge leap to imagine that as we become more confident in dealing with difficult conversations, maybe even with those exhibiting very angry behaviour, we may allow ourselves to enter into situations where discretion might have been the better part of valour. Be mindful of this and take steps to ensure your own safety.

Intuition Being Safe vs Feeling Safe

I’d like to suggest that having difficult conversations is an advance human skill and that keeping ourselves safe from doing so is too-little discussed and rarely, if ever, taught. We are very much on our own and often have to make our own way, we really are making it up as we go along

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that great book on intuition Blink where he highlighted the powers and the pitfalls of intuition, citing incredible decision making by some individuals and impulsive prejudice influenced disasters such as the wrongful killing of black teenagers by police officers. The lesson is that we have to use intuition alongside other information about the situation we are facing.

Some of us think we are in danger when we are not, others that we are safe when at great peril. We need to use intuition, or gut feeling, along other information in order to best operate in challenging environments.

Reflective exercise

  • Make yourself aware of the security arrangements in the building you work the most. Are they fit for purpose? Do they enable you to have difficult conversations if necessary?
  • Think about the last time you were confronted by an angry or threatening individual. Think about what you said to yourself about how should have handled that situation. Check that what you might have said to yourself may be useful or indicate an over confident or casual response to threat.

Phil Jones

April 2017

Zero Sum Game – We All Win

The term Zero Sum game comes from game and economic theory in which is a each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. In the world of conflict mediation it has been borrowed to add weight to the notion of a “win-win” solution.

In this short article we will look at some of the practical and philosophical implications of zero-sum or win-win thinking and how this relates to holding difficult conversations and building or maintaining highly successful relationships, whether in the workplace or in our personal lives. I am going to start by setting out three positions for the outcome and process of holding difficult conversations.

Three Positions

Win-Lose or Non-Zero Sum

In win-lose situations one person comes out on top and the other loses out. Simple examples include robbery, extortion or situations where one person enters into a transaction with someone in a much less powerful position.

Win-Win or Zero Sum

In this case the value of exchange between the parties are equal. For example in shopping scenarios, there is an agreement by those who are selling and those who are buying and the exchange is mutually satisfactory or when feuding colleagues manage to come to an agreement which suits them both.

Extended Value – More Than Win-Win

A third position with a view to providing a pathway to those interested in pushing the value of holding difficult conversations beyond a neutral and successful termination of a conflict. Extended value means looking at solutions that are even greater than the successful achievement of planned outcomes of both parties. For example when conflict between teams leads to a detailed discussion of each others’ roles and functions leaving to opportunities being spotted for further efficiencies.

Things to remember

Applying this thinking in our everyday contact with other people, we may wish to remember the following.

  • Perceptions are everything

The value we place on what we exchange is crucial to achievement a successful outcome. A cup of water may be highly valued to a de-hydrated man but non at all if we are sitting in our kitchen with the taps to hand. If I exchange a service or favour with my neighbour – let’s say he mends my bathroom tap as an apology for his teenage son damaging my car with his bike – how I value the service exchanged is pretty much up to me. If I am qualified and competent plumber I may not value his service as much as if I was inept in that department. If the damage to my car is severe I may feel that this is insufficient. We decide the value of the outcome.

  • Politics of Win-win

Having said that the individuals themselves decide the value of exchanges, there is often a political (small p) context to the conversation, often relating the power relationship between the parties. The often sad and demeaning role of the sex-worker is characterized by the exchange of money from the more affluent punter to the frequently drug dependent sex worker. On the surface money is exchanged and a service offered, apparently, willingly. However the inequality of power positions of the parties leave an uncomfortable result.

  • We Are All Intertwined

In the context of family and friends, the enmeshed nature of our relationships is easy to see and to value. We do things for each other, as we know that our lives will benefit as a result. If we see work as a social context, we can see the benefit of supporting colleagues. In the context of holding difficult conversations, we may be happy to consider the other persons point of view.

Practical Strategies

  1. Win-win is in the planning

In the first session of this course “What Do You Really Want” we looked at how we might formulate our objectives. If we are interested in other people’s value, I suggest that we should consciously reflect on what they need at the planning stage. We can plan what we want and also what may be good for the other party in the discussion. If we are bartering we may wish to be careful of what we disclose, however in many situations anticipating what the other party might want can be powerful in building better relationships.

  1. Consider the Three Positions as a continuum

Whilst we may always wish to seek win-win solutions, there may be situations where this is simply not possible. Many of you reading this article will work in beleaguered public sector organisations where denying members of the public a service is a too often an occurrence as austerity bites. How can we possibly get a win-win out of a “no”? In such situations we need to do the best we can to respond to the needs of the individuals we are saying no to – their need for transparency, fairness and to have their situation recognised may seem like a poor substitute for delivering a service, however they are better than the alternative.

  1. Look out for that which benefits others

Simply put, have on your radar what benefits the people you are dealing with. An of course you can ask!

  1. Carry the principle

There are probably many values that we carry with us that we are not always able to express, although we would wish to do so. The win-win principle can slip into your wallet or purse next to kindness and fairness. If you prefer you may consider it as a further convenient belief.

What benefits others, benefits me

Reflective Exercise

  1. Consider the person with whom you are having the most difficult conversations currently. What would help them develop agreement with you?

  2. Think of the last time you reached an agreement. What could you and the other party done to achieve “Extended Value”?


Phil Jones, April 2017

Managing the Environment

We can’t always plan where we hold difficult conversations, sometimes they come upon us in the most inappropriate places and times. All we can do is do the best we can to create the best environment.

Let’s Keep This Between Ourselves

If it is safe to do so, privacy is critical in having difficult conversations. Firstly it allows people to speak without interference and interruption, it allows the conversation to take place without the fear of being overheard and the impact that this may have on the ability of the parties concerned to share their feelings or to talk honestly. It also prevents any potential “drama” from the conflict leaking out into other areas of the workplace – it just doesn’t help!

Being able to think on your feet here is crucial. Spotting the availability of an unused office or even a storeroom and suggesting that “let’s chat here?” could be useful. Where no such venue is readily available, suggest that one be sought so that you can talk properly. If other people are present, consider whether it would be appropriate to ask them to leave whilst you talk.

We should of course be mindful that an invitation to change venue should be seen as just that, an invitation. Both parties should be agreeable to this. Any sense of threat should be avoided to avoid the danger of a “let’s take this outside” scenario.

The Environment as Communication

Where we meet is an important message.  Albert Merhabian highlights the important place the paralinguistic element of communication play in conveying attitudes. Paralinguistic elements include the venue for meetings – for example it is said that the queen only ever smells wet paint wherever she goes, because everywhere she visits, people spruce the place up. Why? That’s because the queen is “important”. So if we make the place look nice for important people, what does that say for those whom we don’t tidy up for?

This doesn’t mean that you need to reach for the vacuum cleaner when you next have an argument with someone. However your consideration in choosing or arranging a suitable venue is likely to be communicated to the other party as a message that you are interested and have the interests of better understanding at heart.

Give Me Some Space

In week seven we’ll look more closely at the role of body language on successful communication during conflict. When it comes to thinking about space and the body we must consider proximity and power in where we position ourselves.

Whilst some people are more comfortable being physically closer to others, we know that some people prefer greater space. A few basic guidelines my be

·      Careful with touch. Difficult conversations may include someone who is upset and, in such circumstances, we may consider that they need comfort. We can demonstrate our empathy with what we may say and with our voice tone, however in most situations, touch should probably be avoided. In such highly charged circumstances, communication is rife for misinterpretation and a hand on the shoulder may be construed as controlling or too-intimate. The exception of course may be in the event of comforting our children or those close family members or friends where we can have more trust that such a gesture should not be misconstrued.

·      Head height. I would try, if possible, to arrange myself so that my head would be at the same height as the person with whom I’m having the difficult conversation. This may at first glance seem petty, maybe ridiculous. However if we consider the alternatives – being seen as looming over the other person or passively looking up at them – we can see that head height is actually a form of communication.

·      Mind Your Distance. We would all recognise that being too close or too far could be a problem in difficult conversations but how do we decide in what is the right distance? We probably need to rely on a combination of our intuition and noticing. If it feels too close or too far, it may well be. If the other person looks like they’d like to get further away or closer (threats of violence aside) we may like to respond. When seated I would recommend sitting in such a way that means that neither party could necessarily reach out and touch the other, without changing their body position of reaching forward.


Reflective Exercise

1.     When you’re next meeting someone – not necessarily a difficult conversation – just notice how you get yourself comfortable in terms of space between you. What allows you to feel safe in this setting?

2.     Consider the rooms available to you to meet with customers, service users and other colleagues. Do they communicate welcome and an appreciation towards those people.

3.     When you’re meeting with other people, what do you do with your body? Imagine that there’s a camera set up in the corner, what would it show?

Managing Thoughts About Ourselves


Last weeks piece was about Managing Thoughts About Others and therefore it’s not big a leap to consider the importance of Managing Thought About Ourselves. Arguably what we think about ourselves in relation to difficult conversations might be considered as the most crucial aspect of our ten-week journey into Holding Difficult Conversations – what we say to ourselves, about ourselves, may be the key to unlocking the skills needed for successful difficult conversations.

We Are Our Thoughts

If we ask ourselves what we feel about conflict the response may telling. We might reply with “the whole thing makes me nervous”, “frankly I’d rather walk away than have a row”, “I don’t let anyone walk over me”. These indications are either describing our responses to difficult conversations or, in the last example, our defence from the impact of facing upsetting situations.

The suggestion that “we are our thoughts” infers that whilst our answer to that question are descriptions of our responses to conflict, they may also have an impact on how we guide ourselves when facing such situations. If we were to ask mediators, warzone arbitrators and maybe police officers facing many a Friday night fracas, we are likely to get answers like “well I keep calm and focused”, “I remember that isn’t about me and try to listen”. What we say to ourselves may be crucial to help us remain resourceful when up against it. When conflict arises saying to yourself, “well this isn’t nice but I can handle it”, “I am someone who is strong enough to keep listening, even when people are being horrible” may be one of the small things that keeps us present and listening.

On a side note, what people say about their attitudes towards conflict may sometimes be interpreted differently. Some years ago I was facilitating a large group in an organisation that was experiencing considerable change and people were very cross. I was assisted in running these events by a young man from the HR department who was, coincidentally, training to be a priest. In the rather intimidating introductory session a female group member fixed me with a steely stare and proclaimed “I think you’ll find that I don’t suffer fools gladly”. Trying my best not to look unshaken I smiled and nodded and continued with the session. My supportive co-worker for the day sidled up to me whilst the group were busy with the exercise and said, drily “I sometimes find that when people say that, they really mean…I’m rude.” 

I chuckle about that to this day.

Our Background and Presuppositions About Ourselves

We bring to conflictual situations notions about ourselves, who we are, what we are like as people and ideas of how conflict should be handled. Our childhood experiences of difference of opinion may have taught us that conflict is scary and unsafe, we may have seen adults being out of control and damaging those around us. In many cultures men are socialised to associate disagreement with violence and may have internalised ideas of “not backing down” or compromise as unmanly, a sign of weakness.

None of this needs to get in the way of being able to connect with others whom we disagree with although it can be useful to recognise when we are operating on stimulus which may be historical. It’s useful just to notice the sensations we experience. Marshall Rosenberg, who invented Non-Violent Communication – of which more in later weeks – described the kind of angry responses to others, whether internal or external, as being like “jackal” chatter. When asked what to do when we experience that kind of angry monologue in ourselves, replied that we should just notice it, suggesting that we “enjoy the jackal show”. He didn’t mean that this chatter was entertaining, but that we should watch the jackals come and go and not fight them.

Let’s Stop Being So Hard on Ourselves

Adults are very much invested in being competent. We like to feel on top of our world and competent in our day-to-day life. With so many folks worried about difficult conversations, it can’t be surprising that there is a great deal of shame around such challenging interactions.

I’m going to suggest that we give ourselves a break. It’s good to reflect on the convenient belief from last week – “WE too are doing the best we can with the resources available to us”. When we hear ourselves admonish the way we have managed such conflict, let’s not be too hard.

Most people would do anything than have a difficult conversations – even by attending this course you are at the cutting edge. Let’s celebrate that!

Reflective Exercise

  1. Notice what happens in your body when in conflict. Write down what happens to your body, what thoughts come into your head and any feelings that you’re able to name. This is just information
  2. Reflect on what you say to yourself about being conflict. Change the script a little. “I am confident when the conversations gets heated” or “I am pretty good at explaining things to angry people”.
  3. Once again lets go with “I am doing the best I can with the resources I have available to me”


Phil Jones March 2017

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