Having Difficult Conversations (Introduction).
We all have something in our minds that we can’t quite say because we fear how the other person might react to it. Maybe it’s a request, a criticism, an offensive opinion, or a negotiation—all of which involve having difficult conversations with someone.
So, here’s a tactic I learned from the former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss known as The Accusation Audit. I’ve thoroughly digested the information and structured it, creating a tool you can follow a step-by-step.
The Accusation Audit.
Having difficult conversations can often lead to people making negative assumptions about you. Before presenting your request, offer, or criticism, you proactively list and acknowledge the negative things your counterpart could say about you or your actions.
This will disarm the listener, making them a lot more open to your idea, as it builds rapport and makes the negative assumptions (or accusations) less likely to occur in the listener’s mind.
This tool is commonly used by many professionals during difficult conversations, for example, while defending a client in court. Here’s how to use it step-by-step.
How to Use It?
1. Identify Your Request, Offer, or Criticism.
In the first step of The Accusation Audit, clarify your request, offer, or criticism in your head. You can also practice talking to yourself when no one is around.
This step is made explicit because people often lack a clear idea of what they actually want. For instance, one might feel sad due to something, but not quite able to point out what’s bothering them.
Example I: “I want to ask for a deadline extension for submitting the class project from my teacher.”
Example II: “I want to criticize my team member’s performance regarding his overuse of fakes while dribbling.”
2. Anticipate Potential Negative Assumptions.
While having difficult conversations, the other person may misinterpret our intentions.
This step is about anticipating what negatives might arrive in your listener’s mind during your request, offer, or criticism.
Example I: If you want to ask for a deadline extension for submitting the class project, your teacher might think you’re not taking the project seriously or disrespecting them.
Example II: In the case of criticizing your team member’s football performance, he might think you’re insulting him or being too hard on him.
3. Proactively Address the Concerns.
Now, start with the negative assumptions the listener might start having once you state your request, offer, or criticism. You don’t have to always do it without context and out of nowhere, you can also do it in the middle of a conversation, even after the listener knows your request, offer, or criticism. But for the sake of clarity, we’ll start with the potential accusations.
Example I: “Hi professor. I have a request. I know you’ll think I’m disrespecting you or not taking this project seriously.”
Example II: “Hey Jimmy! One thing’s been bothering me for a while now. I know you might think I’m insulting you or even being overly critical since you’re working hard.”
4. Assure and Make Your Request, Offer, or Criticism.
After you voice the potential accusations, assure the person before making your request, offer, or criticism. The assurance part is important for flow.
Example I: “I promise you I’m taking this project very seriously and do know we were given enough time to complete it. I just need two more days to complete it so that I don’t mess it up just to get it done faster. I want it to be perfect.”
Example II: “I assure you that’s not the case. I believe we need to be open with each other for both of us to grow faster. I just noticed you’ve been trying to use too many fakes while dribbling the ball, which just results in you giving the ball away. I think you should experiment during the drills but attempting them during the matches makes it hard on all of us.”
1. Reason After Request.
You might have noticed that I included an additional step, although I didn’t explicitly state it. This step involves providing a reason after stating your request. For instance, when I said, “…so that I don’t mess it up just to get it done faster. I want it to be perfect.”
It’s a very simple persuasion trick, just state the reason for your request. Doing so makes it more likely to be agreed with. While not necessary, it’s worth mentioning as it can significantly improve the chances of a positive outcome.
2. Make Them Think the Worst-Case.
You can also use The Accusation Audit to create a worst-case scenario in your listener’s mind before stating your request, offer, or some bad news. By doing this, the listener will consider the worst possible outcomes, and when you eventually reveal the actual request or offer, they will perceive it as better in comparison.
This technique effectively makes the conversation less difficult and can lead to more favorable responses.
For instance, imagine your friends send you to buy a Red Bull, but you can’t find it in any of the shops. When you return and say, “Here’s a Monster, couldn’t find Red Bull,” they might be very disappointed or upset.
The expectation-reality gap is responsible for these negative emotions. This is where The Accusation Audit can prove beneficial. By employing this tactic, you intentionally shift their expectation to something even more negative before revealing the reality, which they will then perceive as significantly better in comparison.
You can say “Bad news, guys. I looked everywhere, but all the shops were closed due to some festival here. I couldn’t find any Red Bull. Only one shop was open, and they only had Monsters.”
Their initial thought, “Oh, no, nothing refreshing to drink now,” will shift to “Oh, yes! Monster.” The use of the accusation audit can alter their perception, making the available option seem more appealing.
Homework: Stand in front of the mirror and practice having difficult conversations through role-playing. You should try this persuasion tool with real people a few times as well.
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Sources: Never Split the Difference.