Din Jenkins is no stranger to difficult situations. He is a police sergeant in Stoughton, a defensive tactics instructor, a member of the regional crisis negotiation team, and he brings all that experience together as the Founder and CEO of Supply the Why — a company that provides training about having difficult conversations, especially about diversity and inclusion.
Jenkins offers five steps to help make those difficult conversations easier and more productive. While these steps will make important discussions about race and equity easier, they also provide value in any difficult discussion we might need to have.
1. Start small
The size of the discussion is important. It’s challenging to have a discussion with lots of people, and impossible if the subject has heightened emotions. The dynamics change rapidly as the size of the group increases, and people will tend to form what Jenkins terms a ‘pack mentality’.
Three Eastern Timber Wolves Pack
A small pack of three Eastern timber wolves gather on a rocky slope in the North American … [+] GETTY
“It’s human nature. You gravitate towards situations that are comfortable, and you gravitate towards people that share your ideology,” Jenkins explains. “So, that’s why you want to start with a small conversation. One-to-one is optimal in these types of situations.”
2. Be realistic
It’s important to go into a difficult conversation with reasonable expectations, both about what you can accomplish and about the other side’s views and understanding. Don’t expect to resolve a difficult situation in a single conversation — especially if emotions are heightened. As the discussion progresses, understanding will deepen, but one side might start from a totally different perspective and need more time to explore and understand the issues. Jenkins terms this as ‘conversational lasagna’— meaning each layer adds and builds the discussion.
3. Stay focused
Keeping the conversation focused is crucial. However, this does not mean the discussion cannot have range. Instead, the focus works on two levels: the immediate discussion and the wider outcome.
First, make sure the conversation is handled with sensitivity in order to deal with one issue at a time. Keeping the focus on one issue means that the energy of the meeting stays in one place, and topics don’t get conflated which causes confusion and complexity.
Second, while it is inevitable that there will be a series of topics discussed, make sure they remain relevant to the broader conversation at hand. You will have an outcome or goal in mind for the conversation, so you need to make sure what’s being discussed is moving towards it.
4. Do your homework
As a leader in the conversation, you need to have an understanding of it. You will have the challenge of managing it, keeping focused on the goal, controlling the pace and temperature of the discussion, and because of that, you need credibility.
This does not just mean knowing the facts. It is also important to understand the facts from different perspectives, so that you know how others might perceive them. This also means that you can present them contextually, helping to improve the understanding.
5. Don’t try to win
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is not to develop a ‘win-lose’ mentality. Having any sense that one side can be a victor will only entrench opposition— exactly the opposite of what you want to happen. Instead, you need to consider how to make the outcome a ‘win-win’.
When a difficult conversation is seen as a ‘zero-sum game’, it means that for one side’s lot to improve, things will have to get worse for the other side. Jenkins says, “it’s an exchange of ideas and thought processes. It is not a competition. It is not an argument. It’s not even a debate.” Instead, the purpose is understanding, whether that’s in a hostage negotiation or buying a car, the goal is to increase what Jenkins calls the ‘relational credit score.’
How this works in negotiation
Jenkins five steps make a great framework for any discussion, but especially when it comes to negotiations in particular. They are difficult conversations by design, both sides will have their ideal outcomes, and it’s likely both sides will have access to different information and have different perspectives.
That’s why the fifth rule is so important. You might ‘win’ a negotiation, and that win will last for the length of a contract. However, when you are negotiating for higher pay or with a new supplier, you actually want that ‘win-win’ for both sides in order to provide the foundation for a long, and successful relationship.