Confronting Confrontation

Giving a difficult performance review. Saying “no” to someone or putting your foot down on creative direction. Acknowledging and confronting tension in a working relationship with other creative people. These can all be difficult conversations that design managers and their team members need to have and that we all sometimes avoid for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, avoiding these conversations can have a negative effect on you and on your design team. Difficult conversations avoided are like the elephant in the corner of the room that no one wants to acknowledge. If you don't have the conversation, it is still showing up in your relationship and can affect the productivity and morale of your entire design team. This can be particularly true when working with creative professionals who, by their very nature, are sensitive to their surroundings and may pick up on the slightest nuance of discord. This sensitivity, mixed in with a room full of introspective and introverted creative folks, requires a manager who's willing to learn and practice new communication skills.

Putting your difficult conversations on the bottom of the to-do list everyday does not usually miraculously solve the problem or ease the tension. On the other hand, taking some time and following a few useful steps will prepare you for the conversation and make it easier. And yes, you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Most importantly, when you take the responsibility to manage your difficult conversations, your whole design team will be happier and more creative.

The first step in initiating a difficult conversation is internal. You need to understand your own motivations and the effect the situation is having on you before you can have a clear picture of how to approach the conversation and what you want to accomplish. This kind of preparation takes some time and effort, but brings a payoff in reduced stress and an improved outcome for both sides. By preparing yourself first, you make it easier to create the kind of emotionally safe environment required to encourage real conversation with a member of your creative team.

Part 1: Internal Preparation Work

Questions to ask yourself to prepare for the conversation:

  • Why is it difficult for me to have this conversation?
  • What am I afraid of? (Perhaps the potential impact of the conversation on the relationship, perhaps the loss of an employee or client of your design firm, or simply the unknown.)
  • What is the worst that could happen if I have the conversation?
  • What is the cost of not having it and the impact that would have on the whole team and on me?
  • What is my contribution to the situation? (No ducking here—be honest with yourself!)
  • What is the “bare bones” story of the situation? (When you look at the simple facts, as a neutral observer would describe them, you may be surprised to find your perspective changing.)
  • Who do I need to be to have this conversation? (Look at your values and integrity, and consider whether or not avoiding this conversation is keeping you “small.” This is a tough one to address when dealing with issues of creative direction. It's hard to know when you are being “small” and not being open to new ideas and when you are truly protecting the creative integrity of your team and the project.)
  • What is the purpose of the conversation? (You need to be clear here and ensure the purpose is one that serves the higher ideals of your design firm, department or team.

During your internal preparation you may find you have some strong emotions on the subject. Acknowledging these feelings beforehand will give you the confidence to share them during your meeting with this person without being afraid they will boil over on you and cause conflict. You'll know you're ready to initiate the conversation when you feel calm and open to new perspectives. And lastly, be ready to work with the outcome even though it may not be your original “ideal” solution.

Part 2: Initiating the Conversation

Set the stage

  • Choose the right time and place. Think of the balance of power and choose a neutral location and a time when you will not be disturbed. This can be difficult to achieve in an open-layout design studio. Consider asking your co-worker out for lunch, coffee or just a walk around the block so you will not be disturbed.
  • Invite the other person to discuss the topic and let him/her know it's OK to ask for time to prepare.
  • Set ground rules at the beginning of the conversation, such as keeping the conversation on topic and giving each other feedback if the conversation starts getting defensive.
  • Make sure the other person knows you are prepared to respect their individuality and will encourage them to contribute to the conversation.

The neutral opening

  • Open with a “cooperative statement” to help remind you both that you have a working relationship based on a shared goal and creative vision. This helps you both to own your position for a moment and start the conversation. For example: “I know the integrity of our design work here is very important to both of us. That's why I want to sit down with you and discuss this situation” or “I really value our relationship and know there is some tension right now. How can we resolve this?”

Review both sides

  • Ask for help to understand their situation and position. Asking for help to understand will reduce the tension between you and helps you keep an open mind while listening to their story and perspective.
  • Be aware that your creative staff may not find it easy to find the words to express their perspective. You can help by borrowing a technique from improvisational theater to encourage a collaborative problem-solving atmosphere, rather than a conversation that could feel like an inquisition. Listen carefully to their response, however limited, and reply by saying, “Yes, and….” to help draw out their thoughts in a nonjudgmental way. Try to avoid starting your responses with “but,” “no” or “however.” We all use these words, but they very seldom contribute to real communication.
  • Acknowledge your contribution to the situation. Discuss what you did right and what you could have done differently. Remember to welcome their contributions towards helping you explore your perspective.

Seek shared responsibility for a creative solution

  • Look for directions or alternatives you are both willing to consider. Once the conversation has turned to creative problem-solving you should both feel you are on more familiar ground. Restate the shared goal that gave you a common perspective at the beginning of the conversation and seek to find a solution that meets your shared goals and ideals.
  • Be willing to accept that the mutually acceptable solution may be a significant change in the relationship or perhaps a parting of ways.
  • If you are going to walk away from this meeting agreeing to disagree, make sure you know why. In addition, explain what concerns are not met by the rejected solutions.
  • If you have agreed to disagree, take the next step and discuss how the disagreement will affect your ongoing relationship. Respecting individuality is paramount within a creative team. Agreeing to disagree can be an acceptable and positive solution so long as you both understand and accept the new paradigm for working together.

It's not always easy to keep one's cool and remember the big picture during a difficult conversation. Try not to personalize it and let the conversation turn to blame and defensiveness. Ask, “What does resolution look like? What are the possibilities?” Don't be afraid to simply ask the other person, “What would you like to do here?” As a creative person you have the advantage of a naturally curious and inquisitive mind. If you feel your darker side rising up, take a deep breath, let your inquisitive, creative side take over and ask questions that will help the other person reflect and clarify his/her position. You'll be surprised how quickly this technique can dissolve a downward spiral and get you back on track.

No matter the outcome, if the conversation is managed well, you have cleared the air and raised your creative relationship to a new level. Both parties and your whole design team will be in a better position to move forward towards your goals. You can heave a sigh of relief and congratulate yourself for having the courage to take one more “difficult conversation” off your to-do list.