What To Do in the First 30 Seconds of a Tough Conversation

The first 30 seconds of a difficult conversation is the most important part.

It seems counterintuitive, but that first half-minute is what matters most.

During that time, you have to quickly establish mutual purpose and safety. If you share a goal and feel safe with each other, you can talk to almost anyone about almost anything.

That Didn’t Go So Well…

A crucial moment of my career happened as I worked with a powerful CEO of a Fortune 500 company on a project of global significance. I was thrilled, excited, and humbled to be part of this project.

The CEO was a gruff, austere man — large and imposing with a withdrawn demeanour. We built some level of rapport over a few months and developed a plan to address some problems in the company.

One day, we presented our plan to management. Afterward, I was bouncing in my step and feeling proud of our progress when the CEO said, “Joseph, that didn’t go so well.”

My spine stiffened.

“I’d like you to come into my office so we can debrief about that meeting.”

I started panicking.

There were high-stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions — this was a crucial conversation.

When we sat down, he asked, “Why don’t you review the plan with me?”

I was puzzled. He and I had co-developed this plan over the past six months. But I went ahead and started to review, “…The next step is diagnosis. We need to gather data to understand the real issues in the organisation.”

“Yea, that’s what I thought. Take that off the list. We don’t need to diagnose. We have more data than we need. I just want to get something done.”

In my head, I’m mad, confused, and annoyed, thinking, “You don’t get to say that! We created this plan together! Where is this coming from?!”

That’s the moment. In these moments, a myth starts to emerge.

I start to think, “Do I tell the truth or keep a client?”

Then, I recognise the false dichotomy. I’m assuming I can’t do both.

But I can.

The Hazardous Half-Minute

How do we keep our clients (or friends) while being honest? What do you say first?

Having spent over 10,000 hours watching crucial moments — observing, coding, looking at outcomes, and backtracking to see what led to success and what didn’t — here’s what we know.

You have two tasks in the “hazardous half-minute.”

In the first 30 seconds of a crucial conversation, if you do two things, there’s a 97% chance you’ll be heard. The other person still may not agree with you. They may disagree and it still may be a difficult conversation… but you’ll be heard, you’ll have influence, and you’ll be able to engage in dialogue.

What do you have to do?

1. Establish Mutual Purpose

Help them know that you care about their interests, problems, and concerns almost as much as they do. This is not a trick — it’s genuine concern.

As they start to believe you share a purpose, they exhale and start to listen.

If they’re not convinced, if they see this as a gimmick or technique, they’ll stay defensive and close-minded.

2. Establish Mutual Respect

As you seek a shared goal, also work to create a condition of safety. Yes, you care about their problems and concerns, but you also care about them. Show that you respect them as a human being.

How do you do that when someone is behaving despicably? How do you create mutual respect with someone who doesn’t deserve respect?

The problem is within us, not them. We have to change the way we view them.

What to Say First

Here I am with the CEO, feeling betrayed and frustrated. But I interrupt the story I’m telling myself about how terrible he is and proceed intentionally in that first minute. I want him to know we share a purpose and respect, but I also want to tell the truth.

I say, “I understand that you’re the CEO here. You’re the boss. I’m going to support whatever you decide. With that said, I have some reasons to believe that if we don’t diagnose, it could cause problems for us later. I’m happy to share those concerns with you if you want to hear them. But, at the end of the discussion, it’s your choice.

“Furthermore, if you believe there are things in this project that are just increasing costs without adding value, I want a relationship with you where you feel like you can confront that with me. I should have to answer for everything in this project.”

A sly grin crept up his face and I knew he was ready.

With a little safety, he said, “Go ahead. Make your case.”

I made my case for the plan and we ended up diagnosing. But more importantly than that, it set a pattern for how our relationship would work from then on.

In that moment, he learned that he was safe with me. I respected him. We also had a mutual purpose, and that made it possible for us to reach a level of candour which was otherwise unavailable.

People never become defensive with you about WHAT you’re saying. People become defensive because of WHY they think you’re saying it. It’s the intent — not the content — that provokes defensiveness.

Your job is to reassure them of the intent, so you create mutual purpose and respect. Then, they can relax and listen.

If you can create safety, it is indeed possible to talk with anyone about anything.

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