How to Work on Tough Problems Without Insulting Anyone

A client called me last week to ask how to handle a recurring situation: a longtime manager of one department accused another work group of making serious, costly mistakes — all the time, because they didn’t care — and that other work group naturally felt under attack. 

To prepare my client to go back to the parties, we teased the situation apart on several levels. Here are the five steps we took to help the participants build better habits for engaging in challenging interactions:

Walk through the complaint or problem to establish the crucial details. You may need to start by doing this with each party separately, but eventually you’ll have to sit down together to make sure the specifics are confirmed by both sides — and that you’ve got the full picture. Think of the situation as a twisted string of beads that the parties keep pulling around. You’ll need to untangle it until every bead is visible and sequenced correctly. Otherwise, you’ll have no basis for getting the group to agree to making changes and accepting the new outcomes. 

Break down the idea of “everyone all the time.” If a manager says, for example, “Everybody sends unclear emails,” note how much business was transacted last month with no complaint. Ask directly for any accusation to be limited to concrete specifics. If the goal is to address the problem, then it’s not helpful to say, for instance, “This happens all the time,” even if that happens to be true. You may need to help the manager express the disruption the problem has created and coach them on how to describe the situation without attacking others.

Stop any conversation that slides into attack. Many disappointed people who fear they won’t get the results they want may behave as if other people are bad, wrong, or creating problems purposefully to upset them. Go back to the facts — the individual beads on the string. Your part of the dialog might go something like this: “I understand that you’re upset. Please be more specific about what you actually think is going wrong. Are you saying that every instruction that comes from the marketing department is unclear? No? Okay, good. Tell me what it is you are actually saying. Is Josephine always unclear? No? So is there some percentage of orders that has errors we need to address? Okay, let’s see how we can tackle that group.”

Emphasize how specificity drives improvement. It can be eye-opening for people to hear that it’s not effective to make blanket accusations or exhortations directed at an individual or a group, and that if we’re not specific, we won’t be able to tell if anything improves. Broad accusations aren’t productive; they make everybody tense without ensuring that they know what to do differently. One clear but directive approach is to make very specific requests, such as, “In situation A, please follow protocol B.” Or here’s a more collaborative approach: “We’ve noticed a lot of situation A. How could you help reduce that?” Let the participants suggest appropriate adjustments. 

Help the parties practice delivering cross-functional interactions. Depending on how angry or accusatory any participant is, you may have to intervene more explicitly and persistently until they learn new habits for working with each other. After a difficult interaction in which one party has treated another badly, ask something like, “Were you intending to be insulting? Because they were insulted. And what you said seemed tailor-made to insult them, so I wanted to check what your intention was. If you were intending to be insulting, then I need you to explain to me why you are trying to create dissension in the company.” 

It is legitimate to put them — kindly — on the spot so they understand that their behavior was not acceptable. And it’s important to help them change their approach. If they say, “Oh, no, no, I didn’t intend to insult them — I was just upset,” offer techniques for self-management. For instance, they can ask for a break or excuse themselves from the meeting until they can control themselves. A pause like this can also give them time to think of what to say, and encourage them not to wait until they’re so upset that they blow up when they finally have a conversation about the sore topic.

If they say, “I didn’t mean to insult anyone, I just didn’t know how to say what I meant,” then you can give them examples of how to be more skillful, including limiting their accusations to the very specific facts of any given situation and avoiding inflammatory language, like “You always do this or you never do that” or referring to “that stupid mistake.”

All of these steps are helpful in removing the destructive aspects of these interactions, while focusing on the actual work content. And if you see the habit recurring multiple times, ask why they’re not keeping their commitment to handle problems collaboratively.

Onward and upward —

LK

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