VANTI: How to have awkward conversations

Hey. Here's a video I recorded about some things that help when having awkward conversations. I've made this specifically for Vanti, so if we could keep it in-house (don't share, etc) that'd be great!

There's subtitles if you want them.


If you're more of an audio person, here's the mp3, with a download link. 



Hi, this is Andrew. I'm downstairs in one of those weird rooms in the basement because it was the only way I could work out how to record a video. I was thinking about people who didn't make it to the difficult/awkward conversations workshops and I thought I'd record a video with some of the concepts in it so we can move the conversation onto here and then see what else can come up from it and you can ask questions and stuff. 

So there's a few concepts and practices that I think are actually really useful when you think about talking to people about difficult or awkward things. And I just wanted to introduce you to some of those. 

This is going to be increasingly vital

One of the reasons why I think this is important is because Vanti is such a great place to work and if ya'll are very good at hiring really nice people, but there's a flip side to that, which means that sometimes things aren't spoken about and things get brushed under the carpet because it just feels a bit awkward and I think it's important that we have mechanisms to do what a friend of mine calls flossing your relationships. So being able to think, is there something between me and this person that I need to clear up? And of course the earlier you do that almost always the smaller it is; the longer it gets left, the bigger it becomes. And if you're not really feeling like you can talk to someone about something that's happening, that then leads to side conversations and then that equals politics and if Vanti is going to hire more and more people, and hopefully people who are diverse in terms of the way they think and work as well as diverse in terms of social justice. you're going to be working with a lot of people who are different to you, which therefore means there'll be more flossing to do because there's more to discuss. When we just hire people who are very similar to us then sometimes there's less to talk about. But even then, if you get on with people and you're friendly with them, sometimes it's difficult to shift gear into into being able to clear the air. 

Ladder of Inference

So one of the first concepts that I think is important to think about, and you might remember this from the... if you came to one of the Lessons Learned sessions that we did last year is the ladder of inference. It's really simple. I got it from a guy called Roger Schwarz who got it from some development consultants called Argyris and Schön, who got it from who knows where. 

Imagine a ladder. At the bottom of the ladder is data, at the top of the ladder is conclusions and beliefs. And what happens is things happen to us that we experience through our sensory organs which is as close to data as we get and then very quickly we go up the ladder to the top of the ladder and make conclusions and then forget that that happened and treat those conclusions as if those are data. 

So you walk past me in the corridor and don't say hi. That's the data. Of course you might have said hi and I didn't hear you so that like we can go a level down from data to 'Is the data actually real?' I can very quickly jump up the ladder and go 'You're annoyed with me.' And then sometimes... then you can begin to look for more data because we tend to have a confirmation bias. So when you think that someone's pissed off with you, then you begin to read their emails and their slack messages in particular way. And so it turns, it turns into a whole thing. 

What we wanna do as a general principle is to come down the ladder to the data. 

So one of the first things when you're having a conversation with someone is to check out : Was the data correct? Did you say this or this? And it's good to just presume you've gone up the wrong ladder - I don't know if that's a thing - that you've taken a bit of data and gone to the wrong conclusions. So you really want to go look like: Can I just check something out with you? I presume I've misunderstood, but can I check? And it can go both ways that you're checking out things that they did, but also you can check out what you did and check if they've gone up the ladder as well, which then leads us to a conversation about the second concept, which is super important to really get a grasp on: intention and impact. 

Intention and impact

So when I do something, I know my intention and it has an impact on you and I can only really guess what the impact was on you, if I think about it at all.  Because I don't... I can't read your mind, I don't know what your intention was when you said something to me, but I do know the impact that it has. And so we all, we actually can't, we can't help but the ascribe intention to people's actions. 

When I used to teach a cross cultural communication class, there was this really interesting little animation which had a triangle and a circle and they move around and there's this box that they get into an a big triangle comes and you get people to watch the video and then say what happened? And they tell a story. They say, Oh, well, the circle and the triangle we're in love because they were so happy when they were moving around the screen and then they went and hid from the big triangle who was looking for them and the triangle broke in but then they escaped and like... Hold on, these are geometrical figures on a flat screen and even with those we can't help - maybe I'll find the link to the video - you can't help but ascribe intention and emotions to these inanimate objects and that therefore whern we're with humans, that's largely, that's the way we function is by guessing other people's intentions. But it's actually quite a way up the ladder to make that assumption. 

And so there's something about being really clear about your intention so there's less misunderstanding from the other side. Being curious about their intention, presuming you've gone up the wrong ladder. There's also an element of being explicit about the impact that someone's actions or words have had on you and being curious about the impact that your actions have had on them. Does that makes sense? 

So often our intention doesn't get translated into impact - the impact that we want - and the other way is we presume someone's intention, often by things that we know about them and their body language and their... stuff, and also the impact that it had on us. And unpicking that -  coming down the ladder - to go, What was your intention? This is the impact it had on me, or What was the impact of what I did because this was my intention. 

Impact trumps intention

And here's the main principle is that impact trumps intention. 

So it doesn't really matter if I'm stepping on your foot, it doesn't matter if that was an accident or not. Your foot still hurts. So I need to apologize and I understand that you're in pain. Don't spend ages going 'Well, god, it was just an accident and I'm like, god, stop feeling pain!' Of course you can't expect that of someone and so it's the same when we take an action and it has an impact that we need to apologize for the impact and look after the impact and the impact is more important than the intention .

So generally, impact trumps intention and it's worth before you go in depth into saying that wasn't my intention - sometimes it's worth mentioning it - but mainly like opening yourself up to go, 'Wow! That sounds like it was really hard... tell me more about what that was like' until there's a space in the conversation to talk about your intention. 

Then the other way as well is if you can you try and be curious about the other person's intention when they've done something that's affected you. So that you're able to not make an assumption and come back to it to what they intended. And then once we can get clear about each other's intentions and each other's impact, then we can have a more constructive conversation. 


There are often emotions around difficult conversations and so it can be good to think about where emotions come from. And if we think about three major 'negative' emotion - sadness, anger and fear - then those can be really good data for you to find your way to do a bit of processing of a situation before you have a conversation. 

So, if you're feeling sad, sadness is the emotion we feel when a part of us thinks it's losing something. So certainly this is the emotion we feel around loss. That can be... a mild version of that would be something like a wistfulness and then a major version of sadness would be something like grief. 

Anger is what we feel when a part of us gets a sense its needs aren't being met and that can go from mild irritation and frustration all the way through to rage. 

Fear is the emotion we feel when part of us thinks something bad is gonna happen. Mild versions of that is nervousness all the way up to terror or dread.

So often we're feeling a mix of emotions, but if you notice to go, 'Wow, I'm feeling really scared about this' and it's worth going, OK, fear means a part of me thinks something bad is gonna happen, What is the bad thing I think is going to happen?' and think that through. Particularly if the bad thing is about avoiding a conversation because you think something bad is gonna happen. So it's worth going, 'Ok, that's one option, what else might happen from this conversation?' And then even go the other way to go, 'If I don't have this conversation now, what bad things might happen? What good things might happen?' So you go into the future with, if I have this conversation, it could have these bad outcomes or these positive outcomes, if I don't have this conversation, it could have these bad outcomes, it could have these positive outcomes. And then you're able to balance up to go, OK, can I minimize some of that? Can I minimize the bad things? Maximize the good things? Is this the right time to have this conversation?   And what's the probable thing that's going to happen? There's something about expecting the expected that leads us into the fourth concept. 

So we've talked about the ladder of inference, talked about impact and intention. We've talked about emotions: sadness, anger, fear, which obviously aren't all the emotions, but those are a major three. 

Circles of Influence

There's also something that happens which causes some pain for us, which I think of as Circles of Influence and pain comes when we are trying to control something that's outside of our control. Sometimes - it's not the only cause, but when we do that, it can be painful. So... the only things that are really under your control - almost always under your control -  are the words that you say and the things that you do. 

What's under your strong influence is the thoughts that you're thinking and the emotions you're feeling, though they're not under your control.  Sometimes we think things - it's hard to not think them, we feel things, it's hard to not feel them, but those are under your strong influence. And that's like inside your 'hoop' that's around you. 

What's under your weak influence is everything to do with other people - their feelings, their thoughts, their words, their actions are only under your very weak influence.

Then if you go even further there's stuff that's totally outside of your influence, things that belong to like God or the universe or whatever, like, it's just none of your business. Like, you can't control the weather. ,You can't control the economy. You can't control major shifts in a client. It's totally outside of your control. 

When we're going into a conversation, sometimes we're trying to control the other person's feelings and actually those are under our very weak influence. So going in, being as much in in control or influencing the things that are under your influence, and then doing your best to positively influence the stuff that's under your weak influence by the context, by the way you have a conversation, by the way you hold yourself, by how you introduce the conversation and all of that. But understanding that you can't stop someone feeling pissed off. You can't stop someone feeling sad or angry. And in fact, sometimes those emotions are the correct emotions to be having and letting there be space for feelings, and again, expecting the expected. 

If you are introducing a topic to someone, which means they're going to feel like they're losing something, they are very likely to feel sad because sadness is the emotion we feel when part of us thinks we're losing something. That's totally the appropriate feeling. If you're having a conversation with them which is about them getting their needs not met, they're likely to feel some flavour of anger. If you're talking about something bad that might happen, they're likely to feel a flavour of fear. Those are the appropriate emotions to have. And so we have to work out ourselves to go, 'How will I deal with those emotions?' And expect them and, yes, mitigate them to a certain extent. But not try and control them. 

First aid

There's a bit of first aid which can be useful in a difficult conversation, which comes from a practice called Non-Violent Communication, NVC - Google it. 

There's a lot of rubbish talked about NVC and there's a whole, like, in-depth community of people who dive into it and think it's the thing that saves everything. I find it useful in a particular circumstance when I really want to go, 'I've got to talk to you about this and I don't know how to talk to you about this' or 'I'm so full of feeling or I so feel so awkward' there's a framework that works really nicely. 

So you start with going as far down the ladder as you can and you describe an action that they did. 'When you' [ACTION]... When you [said this], when you [did that] [ACTION] I felt [EMOTION]. I felt [pissed off, angry, sad, scared, worried, happy] - there's also a way of using this to give feedback to reinforce the things you'd like more of 

When you [ACTION] I felt [EMOTION]. Not I felt 'undermined' or I felt you didn't respect me. Those are not feelings. With this format, it's really important to go I felt [EMOTION] Not I felt THAT something. I felt [angry, scared, sad, happy]

Because - and this is an extra layer - because (you go inside and you go) because I [WANTED THIS] or because I [NEED THIS]...  because I [want to feel respected. ]

So when you SAID the other day when you made a comment about what I was wearing, I FELT pissed off and embarrassed because I WANT to know I can come into work and wear what I want without having to second guess it or thinking that people are gonna, judge me.

And then you can even... There's a fourth part. So it's like: behavior that they did, the feeling you felt, the need or want behind your emotion. There's this fourth part which can be making a clear request.

'... so please can you not comment on what I'm wearing in a negative way?' something like that. 

So you're really thinking about unpicking the bits of the conversation and you're more able to know how... like, what are you actually talking about. So it's something worth bearing in mind? Google 'non-violent communication' or ask me more and I'll give you some more of that format, maybe I'll type it out for you. 

Two more things.

It can be worth making a meta-comment

One thing is sometimes it's useful to be really clear about what you're feeling about the conversation. So making what I think of as a Meta-comment. To be able to go, 'There's something I want to talk to you about and I feel really awkward about it, but I think it's gonna really help us work better together if we talk about it' or 'I'm actually really feeling quite pissed off about something that happened last week but I'm also a bit nervous about talking to you about it '. Being able to have that meta-comment can sometimes take away some of the feeling that you have to, like, have everything under control so that it's also OK to go 'I'm a bit worried about this but I think it's gonna really help us.' So you explain what's going on for you, but also your intention in having the conversation. Remembering to allow the other person to have their feelings and also maybe looking at their Book of Me to find out how they like to receive feedback and when.

The magic feedback-seeking question

And then a little bit of something that I'm really encouraging all my leadership clients to do and I would encourage it to be part of the culture here is: when you're having a meeting with someone or a conversation, towards the end - particularly if they're a colleague, but this could even work with clients and customers - that you go, 'Is there anything you're worried about telling me? 'Is there anything that I'm doing which I could do differently?' 'Is there anything that you're holding back?'  Opening a channel... and it's why I... some authors of a book called Thanks for the Feedback - which was about receiving feedback, we can talk about that another time - talk about this phrase which has stayed in my head, which is 'feedback-seeking behaviors' and how important it is to have feedback-seeking behaviors. So allowing there to be a channel for someone to say, 'Actually when you did this, it really pisses me off,' or 'When you do this, it really annoys me' or worries me or whatever. And being able to be ready for that and genuinely listening and it means that you're giving them a chance to 'floss' the relationship and if you can do it with each other... imagine that happening at the end of meetings that you're having regularly with people, that you would be able to be clearing the air earlier and not waiting for someone else to bring something to you, that you're actually able to go, 'Is there anything that you're worried about telling me?' opens up a channel for that feedback to happen.

I can go on, this is one of my specialist topics. I'm also not always fantastic at it to be honest because I'm a person, but I'd be really interested in your thoughts about: Which of these concepts are most useful. What questions do you have and how do you think it's going it's gonna work? How might we implement more of this? What specific difficult conversations do you find hard? And you know, all of that. So ask me - either PM me questions, Slack me or we could thread in slack under this (Edit: in Slack!). So I hope that's useful and that's the kind of things that we're talking about in the workshops.