The Awkward Conversation: 3 Things to Remember

I'm at a company cafeteria, moving through the salad bar, when suddenly, the woman ahead of me, a complete stranger, turns to inform me that she's "not usually this picky with tomatoes."

"Please take your time," I say, trying to reassure her that, if necessary, I'm fully prepared to support her quest to examine, and then reject, the entire tomato bin.

When was the last time you had a difficult or awkward interaction?

The tricky part, according to "Difficult Conversations" (Stone, Patton, Heen), is that often there are three conversations happening at once.

1) The What Conversation: this is the part that's visible to everyone. Picture an iceberg: the "what" conversation is above the water line.

At the salad bar, we're talking tomatoes.


At a performance review, your manager might say you're disorganized. She's talking about the clutter on your desk—that's the "what."

2) The Feeling Conversation: how do we each feel about tomatoes, or each other, or ourselves? This part is below the surface.

At the salad bar, the woman might feel embarrassed. At a performance review, you might feel uneasy.

3) The Identity Conversation: what does this interaction say about me as a person? That's the deepest, most hidden part of the iceberg.

The salad bar woman might consider herself "efficient," or "decisive"—and want to be seen that way.

At a performance review, you might think you're "competent," and hear any negative feedback as an attack on that identity.

In other words, concern with our identity triggers feelings that then bubble up into the visible interaction.

It's a wonder, really, that we ever communicate successfully at all.

Meanwhile, back at the cafeteria, I'm now on the check-out line, where I bump into the company CEO. He notices my rather large salad. I notice his cheeseburger and fries.

"That's quite a salad," he says.

"It keeps getting bigger and bigger," I tell him. "I think it may be growing by itself." I feel a bit defensive—I'm a moderate person, aren't I?

He looks down at his cheeseburger and fries. "I don't usually eat this much either," he says.

Tip: When you're not sure what's going on in a conversation, look below the surface.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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