An Interview with Steven Gaffney: Be Specific, Be Bold, Be Strong

On a recent 710 WOR “Mind Your Business” broadcast, Yitzchok Saftlas (YS) spoke with guest, Steven Gaffney (SG), Communications Consultant For Fortune 500 Companies.

YS: What are your tips for creating honest and effective communication?

The most important thing is getting the unsaid said. The biggest problem is not what people say, it's what they don't say to each other. I once shared this idea during a session, and one woman said, “well, sometimes you get the unsaid said, and it doesn't go well.” So, I asked, “why don't you give me an example.” She said, “I once gave feedback to my peer that he was dropping the ball, and he got upset. So, getting the unsaid said sounds nice, but it doesn't always work.” I asked, “why did you say that to him?” She responded, “I care about the work we’re doing, I care about the customer, and I care about him. I want us all to work better together.” I said, “did you say all of that to him?” What was tripping her up, wasn’t what she said, it was that she didn’t say the rest of it. Beyond getting the unsaid said, I have 9 Strategies For Honest And Effective Communication. I developed these strategies as a formula for resolving issues with anyone. In any job, you get training in how to do certain processes and procedures. There's training for all kinds of things. But rarely is there ever training for how to have difficult conversations and get them resolved.

YS: What is the first strategy?

SG: The first strategy is Deep Listening. In other words, listen and probe about what's going on. When we have a difficult time with somebody, we often want to go into transmit mode. But really, we have to go into listening mode. Just by entering listening mode, you can sometimes solve the entire problem. When people give us feedback, there's assumptions we need to make. Everybody says not to assume, but there's certain assumptions that empower us in our life. And one is to assume that whatever somebody's telling you, is not initially the full truth. So, when people give feedback, sometimes what first comes out is rough and raw, but it's not really the issue. And what happens is, we get defensive and respond, and the other person says, “see, I can't give that person feedback. They just start debating and get defensive.” But if we just probe and let that initial feedback come to us, often you're going to find out the real issue was not what they initially said, but what they eventually said.

YS: Could you explain the second strategy, Ownership Attitude?

SG: Our mindset dictates our behavior. Have you ever had somebody who says they are honest and always going to tell you what they think, but everything they tell you is always something bad? The problem isn't really what they're saying, it's that their mindset is always negative, blaming, or angry. Ownership Attitude means we are 100% responsible for our attitude. Nobody can make us do anything. But that's not how we often communicate. Somebody might say, “I wanted to say no, but they made me say yes.” Let's think about that for a moment. Did they physically move our lips and make us say yes? The reality is, they did what they did, and we chose to say yes. We have to honor that people do what they do, and we choose how we respond. It's not that we don't ever feel pressured, but we need to be responsible for our attitude. One of my mentors said to me, “happiness is an inside job.” Nobody's ruining our day, unless we allow them to ruin our day. That perspective is important, because it will help us to say what we really need to say.

YS: Could you explain how the third and fourth strategies build off of the first two?

SG: If you think about it, the first two strategies are kind of our game plan going into the conversation. We want to probe and listen, and then we want to own our attitude, in order to properly share our perspective. The third and fourth strategies are critical ways to begin the conversation. The third strategy is Purpose, the reason why you want to talk to this person. It’s important to begin with the goal, not the problem. If I were to say, “I want to talk to you about all the issues we're having,” nobody's ever going to be excited to have that conversation. But if we begin more honestly and say, “I want to talk to you about how we can work better together,” we’re still implying that there are problems, but we're letting the person know that we’re not coming to complain. We’re coming because we want to resolve those issues. The fourth strategy is to Share Concerns. Concerns are all the reasons why we don't want to have that conversation. For example, I could be concerned that you might get upset, defensive, or take things the wrong way. The irony is that human beings love to prove people wrong. So, if we tell somebody, “I'm concerned that you're going to get defensive,” they’ll likely respond, “no, I won’t.” And that actually works in your favor. But it's really important to then quickly follow with, “I am not blaming you, but I don't know how to talk to you.” You're taking ownership, but you're honoring that what’s in the way is the difficulty of having the conversation. I’ve found that people can resolve almost any issue as long as they feel comfortable acknowledging it. It isn't really the issue that's the problem. It's the way we talk to each other.

YS: Could you explain the fifth strategy, Notice Versus Imagine?

SG: This strategy is the distinction between fact versus our imagination. If it isn't a fact, it goes into the imagination category. There are only three things you can ever really notice about a human being. Appearance, actions, and words. And that's important, because it reframes our perspective. Can you notice that somebody's passive aggressive? Can you notice that somebody's difficult? Can you notice that somebody's being inconsiderate? No. Those are all opinions. It is conceivable that other people might not perceive that person the same way. So, what's important in a difficult conversation, is to actually look at the facts of the situation, ground the conversation in those facts, and own up to our imagination. I do a T-Chart for this strategy, where you put “notice” on one side and “imagine” on the other. What's so shocking is that when people fill this chart and force themselves to write down what the facts are, I've had people get upset, and even teary eyed, because they realize that they've been so upset with this person, and they can't even remember what the facts are.

YS: What can you tell us about the sixth strategy, Requests?

SG: Go big and go strong. Ask for what you really want. People have a hard time asking for things in life. But what's the worst that somebody could say to us when we're asking for something? The worst they could say is no. People get so hung up on rejection, they never even think to ask. But if they tell you no, you could always just ask again later, or even ask, “what would have you reconsider and be more open to what I’m asking for?” Go strong. Go bold. Go big. Ask for what you really want. But be specific. The problem with a lot of difficult conversations is that they don't really get specific. People will say, “my request is that we get along and communicate better.” What does that really mean? The person who is listening to that will now interpret their own meaning and execute, even though that's not really what the other person wanted. You need to be specific. For example, you could say to your boss, “can you tell me what needs to happen in order for me to be in the number one position to get that promotion? I know you can't guarantee that I will be promoted. But what do I need to specifically do in order to best position myself, so that I'm likely to get that promotion?” Be specific, be bold, and be strong.

YS: What is the seventh strategy?

SG: The seventh strategy is Benefits. Once we’re having these difficult conversations, we need to think about what's in it for the other person. So often, when making requests, people just focus on what’s in it for them, and forget to say what’s in it for the other person. And if you're not sure, it might be a good thing to ask. You could say, “here's my request. How would this be beneficial to you?” Sometimes a person might say, “I don't really see the benefit to me,” in which case, you want to lay it all out and look for a way that both parties can benefit. So often, I’ll see people ask their boss for things and forget to include what’s in it for the organization. Or, I’ll see executives make an argument of why it's great for the company, but they don't make an argument of why it's so great for the employees. No matter what, just think about what would be in it for them. And maybe it's as simple as, “I want us to work better together, because I noticed tension. I don't like that tension, and I have to imagine that you don't like it either. Let's figure out a way how we can all work better together, so that everyone benefits.”

YS: Could you explain the eighth strategy, Follow Up?

SG: When having difficult conversations, no matter how well it goes, people will dissect that conversation afterwards. They'll say, “I wonder now what he meant when he said this. And we didn't bring this up. And I forgot to bring up that.” So, a good rule of thumb is to always follow up on a difficult conversation within 24-48 hours. Don't let it go longer than that. Because after a while, people will start to reevaluate the conversation, and then they feel awkward about it. The best thing is to follow up and say, “listen, we had a great conversation the other day. I just wanted to check in on how you’re doing.” You want to build from the conversation. These aren't just one-off conversations. These are everyday conversations. These methods work, day in and day out, for developing great relationships with anyone. So, always follow up.

YS: Why is it important to end conversations on the ninth strategy, Appreciate?

SG: When you're wrapping up these conversations, no matter where you're at, you need to take time to show appreciation. People won't always remember how you began a conversation. But they will never forget how you left them. Let’s say, at the end of the conversation, there’s still something that didn't get completely resolved. What you could say is, “I really appreciate that you shared your perspective with me. This conversation has really helped, and I feel like we're on a great pathway forward.” Or, if the issue got completely resolved, you could say, “I appreciate you spending this time with me. I feel good about this. I hope you do too. And what I specifically appreciate is, how you shared with me exactly what's going on, and that we both discussed it without blaming each other. We really looked at how to grow, and I feel really inspired to work with you.” People will never forget how you leave them in a conversation. So, always end on some form of a sincere and authentic appreciation.