How to use your writing skills to navigate tough conversations

It can be difficult to deliver criticism in your feedback—or tackle a touchy team problem. Here’s how to use your PR skills to solve workplace issues.

It’s an occupational hazard.

PR pros often run into disagreements with other writers and editors about matters of style or preferences in punctuation. (Serial comma? Did someone say serial comma?)

Though you might be perfectly at ease arguing the merits of the singular they or the correct way to punctuate bulleted lists, you might not be as eager to manage other types of conflicts. No one wants to initiate a difficult conversation or to deliver bad news.

Why not use your writing skills to help? Think of your next difficult conversation or meeting as a writing assignment and turn it into a script. From there, you can role-play the entire conversation.

I recently went through this exercise before a brainstorming and goal setting meeting. I knew the team would disagree on many levels and I wanted to make sure I could express my difference of opinion in a professional way.

Here are a few examples:

  • “I disagree with that advice.”
  • “I disagree with that assessment.”
  • “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about the ad campaign. I really want to hear your thoughts and share my perspective as well.”
  • “I want to understand what we’re trying to accomplish with this project. Can you go back and explain the reasoning behind it?”
  • “If I understand you correctly, you’re trying to accomplish this goal. I’m wondering if there’s a different way to approach this. Perhaps we can . . .”
  • “I like having you on the team because you raise important issues and feel strongly about them. I’d like to talk you about whether you’re having the impact you want to have.”
  • “I’m surprised by all this and it’s a lot to take in. I want to take some time to think about it and digest what you’ve said. Let’s come back to it tomorrow.”
  • “I agree that there are things I’ve contributed to this. I’d also like to step back to look at the bigger picture together, because I think there are a number of other areas that are important for us to understand if we’re going to change things.”
  • “That’s upsetting to hear, because it’s now how I see myself or who I want to be.”
  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, so it’s hard for me to focus on your feedback. I think we need to discuss my response to your feedback as well as the feedback itself.”
  • “We’re both making arguments, trying to persuade the other. However, I don’t think either of us is listening to, or fully understanding, the other. I know I’m not doing a good job trying to understand what your concerns are. So, tell me more about why this is important to you.”
  • “I see two issues here, and we’re jumping back and forth between them. Let’s focus on one at a time. The first is that you’re upset because you think I didn’t tell you about the revised deadline for the website, and I’m upset because I think I did. The other is that you’re worried about how you’re going to meet the deadline while Paul is out on leave. Do you agree? If so, which one do you want to talk about first?”
  • “I’m shocked by this. My internal voice is saying ‘This is not a question of interpretation. That simply did not happen that way.’ You seem upset and might be thinking the same. I’d like to take a break and come back to this in a couple of hours after we’ve both had time to think.”
  • “Okay. We’re deadlocked. We both need to agree on this, and we don’t. Your solution is that I should give in. As a process, that doesn’t feel fair to me. On the other hand, I don’t know how to break this deadlock, so we’ve got to figure it out. What’s a fair and efficient way to decide when we don’t agree?”

(Sources: “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson and “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Douglas Stone and Shelia Heen)

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more from her at impertinentremarks.com.

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