Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Applying a Four-Step Process for Difficult Conversations

By Cheryl Eckl at


For the purposes of this article, please consider the case of Darren and Andy: When Darren was promoted to head up another department, the managers already in place warned him about their colleague Andy’s negative behavior. He was habitually late for meetings, always critical of others’ ideas, unwilling to help solve even the simplest problems and became very hostile when asked to participate. Furthermore, he was always the last to arrive in the morning and took every opportunity to leave early.

The previous manager had tolerated Andy’s behavior because he felt Andy was smart, quick and could be relied upon to complete his assignments. Darren, however, assessed that Andy was probably more capable than his record would indicate, and felt the team’s performance could benefit from getting Andy more engaged in the work. Unfortunately, Darren’s intense dislike of confrontation made it difficult for him to address the issues with Andy personally. Darren’s issues with confrontation aren’t unusual.

Many interpersonal problems stem simply from one’s inability to conduct difficult conversations. Often people are willing—even desperate—to face situations assertively, but they don’t know how. Consequently, they don’t say what they mean, misunderstandings occur and critical information goes unspoken until disclosure is forced out by inevitable disaster. This failure to confront negative behavior also damages group morale, drives out talent and lowers innovation and productivity.

The DESC Process

To address his aversion to confrontation, Darren prepared for the conversation with Andy by
Applying the “DESC” model (Describe, Express, Specify, Consequences). This four-step process helped Darren plan what he would say without becoming emotional, enabling him to practice saying it calmly and allowing for escalation if Andy were to respond negatively.

When first introduced to the DESC (pronounced “desk”) process, Darren was concerned that writing a “script” would make him sound stilted or insincere, but as he used suggestive key words (as detailed below) and he realized that being able to articulate his thoughts and feelings in advance of the conversation created a framework that helped him become effectively assertive.

The Four Steps of DESC Scripting

Step 1: Describe (Key Word: “When”)

The first step in creating a DESC script is describing the problematic behavior while avoiding judgmental or opinionated statements that could make the other person defensive. Begin the “Describe” phase with “When” and state a single behavior in as few words as possible. As Darren discovered, creating a factual statement isn’t easy. His first attempt—“Your hostility and negativity are demoralizing!”—would only trigger an emotional response. Instead, Darren rephrased: “When you’re not engaged…”

Step 2: Express (Key Words: “I feel”)

When stating how you feel about a situation, avoid “you make me feel” statements in favor of “I feel.” Being effectively assertive means you can choose your reactions, even if others are being unreasonable. The goal is to keep the conversation factual and calm by describing feelings rather than acting them out. Be specific: “I’m angry, I’m worried, I’m annoyed.” Darren had to examine his motivation for confronting Andy and reframe his negative emotions into a positive statement: “I feel disappointed because I believe you’re capable of doing more, if you
chose to.”

Step 3: Specify (Key Words: “What would work for me”)

This third step is designed to help articulate the desired new behavior while avoiding blame, judgment or condescension. The key here is to ask for a positive change, not a negative one. For example: “Please try to be more open to the opinions of others” is more powerful than “Stop being so critical!” Darren’s choice was confident and straightforward: “I must insist that you engage more with the team. What would work for me is if you and I explore where and how your strengths can fit better within the team structure.”

Step 4: Consequences (Key Words: “If…then; if not”)

Here, the goal is to demonstrate why it’s in the other person’s best interest to change their behavior. If the behavior doesn’t change or the conversation is disciplinary, then use the negative consequence. If you do introduce the negative, be sure you’re prepared to carry it out or you’ll lose credibility. Darren concluded the script with: “If you will work with me on this, then I am confident that both you and the team will benefit. If not, I will be forced to request your transfer.”

The Results

In his meeting with Andy, Darren delivered his DESC script calmly. Andy was stunned. No manager had ever confronted him with such clear demands coupled with a sincere interest in helping him improve. Andy asked to meet with Darren again after he’d had a chance to consider Darren’s offer. They did so two days later with encouraging results. Andy’s behavior didn’t change overnight, but Darren’s effectively assertive DESC script turned a “difficult conversation” into a more productive partnership.

About the Author
Cheryl Eckl is a facilitator, speaker and personal coach who works with
individuals and teams to achieve creative solutions for both interpersonal
and business problems. She is the author of Learning Tree’s Course 244
“Assertiveness Skills,” and Course 904, “Responding to Conflict.”

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