How to Tell Anyone Anything
Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work
Author: Richard S. Gallagher
Pub Date: June 2009
Print Edition: $14.95
Print ISBN: 9780814410158
Page Count: 240
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814410165
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A New Way of Looking at Dialogue
“I can’t deal with him anymore!”
This pained outburst, spoken sharply into a cell phone, rose above the
din of a crowded Wednesday afternoon at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, as a
well-dressed man wheeled his luggage behind me. Later that same afternoon,
settling into my seat at the United Airlines Red Carpet Club, I overheard more
cell phone conversations from more successful-looking people with business
suits and briefcases—things like:
“She may be the boss, but she doesn’t know how to get along with
“Everyone knows that he just isn’t working out, but no one has the guts
to tell him,”
“I got so fed up with that man that I walked out of a project with him
and got fired!”
These people all have one thing in common: they don’t know how to positively
influence the behavior of other people. They struggle with how to talk with their
employees, their bosses, and their peers about difficult subjects—or perhaps they
have tried airing their grievances and gotten nowhere—so instead, they gripe to
others and feel powerless. They don’t realize that the right kind of honest and
authentic communication, delivered in a nonthreatening way, could actually
change many of these situations for the better. And if this group of elite frequent
flyers among America’s best and brightest feel stuck in situations like these,
where does that leave the rest of us?
Situations like these lie at the heart and soul of our ability to engage in dialogue,
a term the dictionary defines broadly as “an exchange of ideas and opinions”
and more specifically as “a discussion between representatives of parties
to a conflict that is aimed at resolution.” In the ideal, dialogue serves as a mechanism
to make things right. But in our own experience, it too often has the opposite
effect. When we ask people to improve their performance, treat others
differently, or even shower more often, the result is frequently anger and resentment—
and far too often, nothing changing. So does this mean we are forever
doomed to choose between getting people riled up, or swallowing our pride and
accepting the status quo?
In a word: No!
This book presents what, for most people, is a very new and different approach
to having difficult conversations in the workplace—one that is remarkably
effective in actually getting people to listen to you, negotiate with you, and
ultimately make positive changes in their behavior. This approach is easy to
learn and put into practice, and is grounded in broader trends that are now
changing the way we apply psychology to human situations. Above all, it is designed
seemingly to achieve the impossible: to make these conversations painless
on both sides of the discussion.
So, is there a catch to this win-win situation? Yes, just one. It will require
you to change the way you view and respond to people—and at times, say things
that are precisely the opposite of what you might have said in the past. But once
you experience the results of this new approach to communicating with people,
I’m betting that you’ll never go back to the old way again. This new, painless approach
to dialogue will not only help give you power in situations where most
people feel powerless, it will fundamentally change the way you relate to other
people in all areas of your life—because the techniques will work just as well
with personal as with business contacts.
To give you a taste of where we are heading, let’s jump right in with a realworld
example that is all too common in many workplaces:
Now, what would you say to your employee Marcia after hearing this? Let
me guess. If you are like most people, I suspect it would fall into one of three
1. You would have some choice words for Marcia that you probably
wouldn’t say in church.
2. You would gravely intone about your company’s service standards,
how Marcia’s behavior doesn’t meet these standards, and how she
needs to improve.
3. You would try to avoid a confrontation by dodging the subject entirely,
but make a mental note of it for her next performance review.
Next question: how do you think Marcia will react to any of these approaches?
Will she express joy and thankfulness at being shown how to do her job better?
Will she enthusiastically commit to meeting standards of excellent customer
service in the future? In fact, is she likely to make any positive long-term
changes at all, particularly the next time you’re out of earshot?
I didn’t think so—and that’s where this book comes in. Whenever I’ve been
in situations like these (and as someone who spent much of his career managing
call center operations, trust me, I have), here is how I have handled them,
using the approach that forms the basis of this book:
Service with a Slam!
You are the manager of a telephone customer service center, and
once in a while you like to walk the floor and hear what people on
your team are saying to customers. Today, as you approach Marcia’s
cubicle, you can hear what she is saying from 20 feet away:
“This is the fourth time I’ve tried to explain this to you, and all you
do is keep asking more stupid questions! I’ve already spent way to
much time trying to help you with this problem. You need to go find
someone who knows what they are talking about. Goodbye!” As you
walk by, you can hear her slam the receiver down and sigh deeply.
• I would come to Marcia with a smile on my face, observe that this
customer was getting under her skin, and ask her to tell me about it.
• As she responds to me, I would acknowledge and validate everything
that she says. (“You’re right. Customers who don’t read the manual
and take up your time are really frustrating. I hate being in situations
like that too.”)
• Next, I would offer to help make this situation better in a way that
benefits her. (“Would you like to learn how I handle situations like
• Finally, I would role-play better ways to handle the situation with her,
and have fun with it. (“Marcia, here is a way to tell someone they are
stupid without ever using the word ‘stupid’ in the sentence: talk about
what happened when you made the same mistakes.”)
What you are seeing here are the mechanics of a totally new way of having a difficult
conversation—a positive, criticism-free process that never puts the listener
on the defensive, even in difficult or sensitive situations. The results of this approach?
Consistently, over and over, I’ve watched people with so-called “bad attitudes”
blossom into top-rated employees, some of whom even garnered awards
and leadership roles.
But for some of you reading this, I believe that I can read your mind right
now. “Oh, come on, you’re just being nice to a rude employee. You aren’t holding
her accountable. She isn’t experiencing any consequences for her behavior!”
If you work with people in the real world, these all sound like legitimate
concerns—so let’s look critically at each of them:
“You’re just being nice to a rude employee.” Actually, what you are seeing
here is a very formal, scripted process that has nothing to do with my attitude.
It is, in fact, a thoughtfully planned and composed performance.
More important, this isn’t something that I or anyone else just made up
off the top of our heads, but rather a process based on very specific principles
of human behavior. As you read through this book, you will learn
exactly what I said at each step of this process, and why I am saying it.
“You aren’t holding her accountable.” Actually, if you read this carefully,
I am holding her very much accountable: I am coaching her. And I will
keep coaching her, again and again if needed, until her performance
meets my expectations. What I think you really mean to say is that I am
not criticizing her, and on that point you are precisely correct.
Listen carefully. I have never accepted people giving less than their very
best at their jobs, and I have the management track record to prove it, including
creating near-perfect customer satisfaction ratings, near-zero external
turnover, and high growth. Anyone who has worked for me for
more than ten minutes knows that I have extremely high expectations
for how people treat our customers, our organization, and each other.
And at the end of the day, I use a painless approach to communications
skills for a very selfish reason: it gets me much more of the behavior that
I want in situations like these.
“She isn’t experiencing any consequences for her behavior.” What you are
really saying is that she isn’t experiencing any punishment for her behavior.
Again, you are correct. I am 100% focused on changing how she responds
to customers in the future, rather than making her feel bad about
how she responded to them in the past.
One of the things you will learn as you work your way through this book is
that while our natural reaction is often to lash out at people who disappoint us,
criticism and punishment are almost always the least effective way to change
performance. If you want things like sullen compliance, resentment, turnover,
and sabotage, negative feedback will certainly get you there. But I want something
much better for you: I want you to be able to help people grow and
THE THEORY BEHIND PAINLESS CONVERSATIONS
Picture an important peer in your life: perhaps your spouse or partner, a good
friend, or one of your co-workers. Now, I have a question for you: have you ever
tried to change his or her behavior? When I ask this question to audiences at my
training programs, nearly every hand goes up (including mine). But then when
I ask another equally simple question—did it work?—suddenly no one’s hand
The reason for this is that most of us naturally practice “deficit-based”
communications, where we point out another person’s faults and try to correct
them. Deficit-based feedback is simple and logical—and almost never works.
Why? Because human beings are inherently programmed to fight back against
criticism, no matter how “right” it is.
But there is a new approach in psychology—it’s called a strength-based
approach—that will dramatically change your ability to influence people in any
situation. It isn’t a gimmick, nor is it a random assortment of verbal techniques
that you will need to memorize and pull out on command. Instead, it is a proven
approach that is based on one simple but powerful idea:
Always speak to the other person’s strengths and interests—even in difficult
It is the key to effective, painless communication on any subject. Sounds
simple enough, right? So why isn’t everyone practicing strength-based communication
already? The problem is, when we go into the real world and run headon
into challenging situations, strength-based feedback is the last thing on earth
we want to do. Here is why:
• When an employee is late again, the last thing you want to do is
• When you feel someone is dead wrong, the last thing you want to do
is explore the benefits of her approach.
• When someone is rude and abrasive, the last thing we want to ask is
what frustrates him.
But that last thing you want to do is exactly what will keep another person in
dialogue, and more often than not, change their behavior. Here is why:
• When you acknowledge the feelings and frustrations of the late employee,
you can much more effectively coach him—or even discipline
• When another person feels you understand the benefits of her approach,
it becomes much easier for them to listen to your concerns.
• When you connect with another person’s frustrations, it opens the
door to showing him more productive ways to handle them.
Using numerous real-life examples, this book will show you how to fundamentally
change your ability to influence other people’s behavior, using a simple
process that creates honest, authentic dialogue that benefits everyone concerned.
As I mentioned before, these powerful new communication skills have their roots
in psychology; if you are interested in learning more about the psychological underpinnings
of these techniques, read Appendix B. Meanwhile, let’s start by looking
in detail at why difficult conversations are so hard for most of us.
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