Three Considerations for Approaching Tough Conversations
A trait seen in many high-functioning boards is the ability of board members to recognize and address conflicting opinions on a regular basis. In order to ensure such conversations are successful, preparation is arguably the most important step. Preparation will help you avoid common pitfalls and traps, guide the conversation toward agreement and create the possibility of a more productive dynamic between the participants. On a personal level, being prepared can also help you remain calm and in control when confronted with disagreement and other interpersonal challenges.

Three things to consider when preparing for a tough conversation:
  1. What is the problem?
    What factors have caused the issue to surface? What is an ideal outcome for you, and what is an ideal outcome for the other person? It’s important to remember that both parties want the same thing: whatever is in the best interest of the association. So how much needs to change to get both parties on the same page? You may need to consider if there is anyone else you should speak with prior to initiating the conversation so you can gather information in advance.
  2. Why is it a problem?
    Issues can persist between board members if they don’t see eye-to-eye, but sometimes conflict is caused by mistaken assumptions. First, ask yourself what assumptions have you made about the other person’s intentions? What assumptions have they made based on the information that they have? Second, what appears to be a personal problem between two people often has deeper roots. What is the other person afraid of? Immersing yourself in the other person’s perspective can help you realize what’s causing him or her to behave a certain way. To unearth what isn’t always obvious, start by asking the other person questions before initiating the conversation. That will help you identify the beliefs you share, as well as pinpoint where your beliefs diverge. This will allow you to better address their concerns and explain your point of view, and ultimately, get to a better place.
  3. What is the state of the relationship?
    Is this a high-trust or low-trust relationship? The more trusted a person is, the more influence he or she will have. If there is a high level of trust, an issue could likely be discussed over coffee with little advance preparation. If there is a low level of trust, or if the relationship is damaged, there could be negative assumptions brought to the table. If that is the case, a fact-based approach works best to remove emotional interference, clear up these assumptions and refocus the conversation on the end goal. The larger the trust disparity, the more information the person initiating the conversation will need to gather in order to figure out exactly why the two parties feel differently.
Thoughtfully answering these three questions during your preparation can increase the likelihood of a successful discussion, but it’s only the first step to navigating tough conversations. It’s also important to spend time creating open dialogue and determining the best way to move forward. All of this effort is worthwhile in the end, because the quality of your conversations dictates the quality of your relationships, which can directly impact your effectiveness as an association board member.
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