A powerful tool to facilitate hard conversations

written by Erica Quam

An important element to building a team is creating an environment where constructive conversations can happen. How can you foster an environment where:

  • people voice opinions without the fear of being judged, criticized or excluded?
  • people have different opinions and respect one another in the end?

No matter what age group you work with - from kids to adults - this takes real work!

First, it requires a certain level of trust within your group. People need to feel like they can trust their teammates before they will even begin to speak up and not feel threatened.

Next, once you have established that foundation of trust, it helps to give people the tools - or even the words - to have difficult conversations. It's powerful to model what that looks like and give them the words to use.

Most people don't like conflict and avoid it at all costs. People often keep ideas and opinions to themselves - so they won't have to share something contrary to the beliefs of the group...and so they won't have to bump up against anyone else's opinions.

There comes a time when the 'avoidance approach' no longer works. There's a tipping point...when a conflict has simmered over time and then...BOOM...it suddenly comes to a head. 

When emotions run high, it can be utterly confusing. Some conflicts seem to come out of the blue. Usually, however, if you take a step back and reflect on conversations leading up to 'the issue', there were other clues that this 'crux' was coming.  

Perhaps there were passive-aggressive comments being mumbled under someone's breath...or opinions shared with other teammates - in an attempt to rally support. Instead of having a direct and constructive conversation...drama ensues: people take sides, emotions run high...and 'the issue' (that is usually small) grows exponentially. Sound familiar?

Give your athletes a framework to guide these difficult conversations - in advance of the conflict. Establish language they can practice and draw upon later. 

The Awareness Wheel

The Awareness Wheel

The Awareness Wheel is a tool I used with my team. We would use real examples of past conflict on the team (usually light and easily resolved conflicts) that everyone knew about and could relate to as a way to practice difficult conversations.

Two volunteers would 'walk through the wheel' and discuss 'the issue' in an actual conversation - one person at a time.

THE ISSUE: Gina was talking about Debbie behind her back.

Debbie walks through the awareness wheel first and begins with what she thinks about THE ISSUE: Gina talking about her behind her back

"Gina, when you talk about me behind my back I think you don't like or respect me (thoughts). I feel sad (feelings) because I thought we were friends. I sense that you don't really like me (intuition). I want you to come directly to me if you have something to say (intentions). I will try to be more open (actions)."

Gina walks through the awareness wheel next and starts with what she feels about THE ISSUE:

"Debbie, I feel threatened by you (feelings). I want to talk directly to you (intentions) but I'm afraid (feelings). I will try to come talk to you personally next time instead of going behind your back (actions) but my gut tells me you will not be able to hear what I have to say (intuition). I thought that I could trust you...but somehow I really question your sincerity (thoughts)."

One turn around the wheel obviously hasn't solved the issue or gotten to the root of the problem. Your original volunteers could go through another turn, or you can have two other volunteers jump in and take over.

Instead of just venting, or one person doing all the talking, this tool helps people to take a look at what they are actually thinking and feeling. It helps them verbalize what they actually want from the other person and say what action they are willing offer in return.

The key to the conversation is while one person speaks, the other person listens. Each person takes a turn. It's important to facilitate the steps and then have a quick discussion afterwards.

  • Were there any ah ha's? What did you think about this?
  • How can we apply this new knowledge & awareness to conflicts that come up in the future?

This exercise can teach people that everyone's perspective is seen through their own unique lens and impacted by their own thoughts, feelings, & experiences - which are real to them.  

Sure - the activity is contrived - and it will probably feel really awkward as they walk through it. Keep it light and fun! In the heat of the moment you may not stop to 'walk through the awareness wheel'..and perhaps with practice it will give your athletes the words to work through a future conflict more constructively. 

Most of the time people will find that when they slow down and actually listen to one another, they will experience more similarities than differences. When you really take time to listen, you can develop a better sense of understanding and awareness about where the other person is coming from and the issue can be more easily resolved.

What are some other ways you could utilize this tool - with your team or for yourself? Share one way in the comments below.

(edited and changed from original post on 5/1/15)