Difficult Conversation? Try It Again, This Time with Feeling

UPDATED: December 17, 2012
PUBLISHED: December 17, 2012

There’s an assertiveness technique that’s known by many names, but I know it as The Three F’s. The letters stand for Fact, Feeling and Future, and the technique is useful when you’re feeling too anxious to deal with someone about a subject that’s bothering you.

Let’s say it’s the boss you need to deal with. Here’s how it works. You go into their office. “Can I have a minute?” you ask, and the boss looks up, identifies who you are, and says, “Sure.” You sit down, to get yourself on the boss’s level, and you say, “There’s just something that’s been bothering me a bit, and I’d like to improve the situation.” “OK,” says the boss. A little crease appears between their eyebrows.

You roll out the technique.

You start with a statement of fact: “When we’re in a meeting and I say something you don’t agree with, you sometimes refer to it as ‘really stupid’.” You continue with, “I feel quite humiliated when that happens, and it means I feel less motivated to talk in meetings,” expressing the feeling. You finish with, “I’d really appreciate it if you could stop referring to my ideas as stupid, especially in front of the team.” This is the future you hope for.

It’s a strong structure for making a point; you can really lean on it when you feel stressed about asserting yourself. You can script it and practice it beforehand, so that it rolls out more smoothly when you’re sweating on the spot.

Here’s the thing, though. Even though the feeling segment is designed to inspire empathy in the person you’re talking to, if they like deflecting responsibility it might not work. Someone who tells you your ideas are stupid in meetings might just say, “Oh, come on, you know I don’t really mean it.” If you’re the non-confrontational type, your assertiveness engine might stall.

What’s missing is a clear picture of the effect of the problem. To express this, you need to be a lot more expansive in the feeling segment, so that the boss feels it too. Adding five little words – “I’m sure you can understand” – and letting these words cue you to be more expansive, can often do the trick. Maybe you’ll say something like this: “When we’re in a meeting and I say something you don’t agree with, you sometimes refer to it as ‘really stupid’. I’m sure you can understand that I feel quite humiliated when that happens.” [Pause. Wait. Very few people will jump in with, “No, I can’t in the least understand why being told your idea is stupid is humiliating.” If they nod, that’s great. If they don’t, nod yourself, as if their silence is clearly a yes. Then go on.] “Here’s what happens, you see. Not only am I less motivated to talk in meetings these days, I’m also concerned that the team is afraid of being told they’re stupid too. We want them to keep offering their ideas.” [You see how you’ve starting talking more inclusively here? Mentioning the whole team, not just yourself, and referring to yourself and the boss as ‘we’. Excellent work.] “I think it would be great for our brainstorming sessions to find a way to withhold judgment when we’re sharing. What do you think?”

If the boss’s behavior doesn’t change after you’ve made such an effort to communicate productively (if they tell you that idea’s stupid, for example), that’s a shame. But you’ve been brave, you’ve been helpful, you’ve given them a choice and they haven’t taken it. Pat yourself on the back. It’s a success for you. The failure is theirs.  

Alison Lester is a writer and communication skills coach based in Singapore. Her books include a guide to more creative and comfortable presentation skills called Present for Success, and a collection of essays called Restroom Reflections: How Communication Changes Everything. She blogs at RestroomReflections.com, and her first novel, Lillian on Life, will be published by Amy Einhorn Books in January 2015.