Preparing for Difficult Conversations

GrantCraft asked Doug Stone — a lecturer at Harvard Law School, partner at Triad Consulting Group, and a specialist in negotiation — to explain how their research could help grantmakers:

Q. You write in the book that all difficult conversations have “an underlying structure” and that “understanding this structure, in itself, is a powerful first step in improving how we deal with these conversations.” What are the elements of this structure that grantmakers should understand?
A. Any conversation about saying 'No' will really involve three conversations — what we call the ‘what happened’ conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation. We tend to focus most on the ‘what happened’ conversation. People often assume that figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong is all there is to a difficult conversation. But in this case, grantmakers shouldn’t see their work as being about coming up with the right decision — but getting to the best decision they can. This is not about objective truth. It’s a matter of judgment. And my goal as a grantmaker shouldn’t be to persuade you, the grantseeker, that I’m right and you’re wrong. I can simply explain to you my thinking. If you think, by analogy, to conversations when someone’s breaking up, you don’t need to get the other person to agree to break up. What’s important is to be open, honest, caring and clear.

Q. What’s going on in the feelings conversation?
A. First, it will help to have an awareness that people are going to have strong feelings. They care passionately about their projects, and being rejected can make them frustrated, hurt, or angry. It also helps to recognize that sometimes people will translate that sadness or hurt into something else, and sometimes what seems to be about the ‘what happened’ is about these feelings. You can’t just assume there is no substance on their part, but it helps to understand that some substance is really feelings. And you can acknowledge and respond to feelings in a human way — ‘It sounds like this is a real blow to you.’ But don’t try to fix their feelings. Feelings aren’t broken. They’re just there.

Q.How would a grantmaker’s sense of her own identity come into play in a difficult conversation?
A. We care how other people react because we’re protecting our own self-image. If they’re nice about being rejected, you feel, ‘I’m still a good person.’ If they have a negative reaction, you might feel ‘I’ve really mishandled this in a way that proves I’m a bad person.’ To care and feel bad is a good thing. But if saying 'No' affects your sense of who you are, it becomes debilitating. So it’s worth gaining selfawareness here. Ask yourself some questions: How do I feel when I turn someone down? Do I take responsibility for how a grantseeker is feeling? Do I need them to tell me it’s OK so I don’t have to feel bad? If you understand these issues, you can be more clear, less anxious about saying 'No'.

Q. A lot of your research helps people in two-way conversations where they must negotiate the outcome. But as you point out in the book, sometimes — in firing an employee or breaking up a romance — we have unilateral power. This is the situation for grantmakers. What special problems does that raise?
A. Even where you have all the power, it’s still possible to have a two-way conversation. You still need to hear what’s legitimate. It’s not only their feelings and your sense of identity. They might say, ‘You had me modify this proposal 20 times and I don’t like that it’s ended up this way.’ If you listen to this and it’s legitimate, then it’s important to hear them and learn from them. If it’s justified, take responsibility. Apologize and do whatever you need to do. And by listening actively enough to really learn about grantseekers’ situations, grantmakers might also begin to spot patterns that reveal problems with the grant process itself, or even problems in the wider nonprofit environment. With this learning, they could then be in a position to recommend changes to their foundation.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Saying Yes/Saying No to Applicants.