If you have a conflict or disagreement with an employer, employee, or peer at work, you may find this technique very useful.  It is equally effective at dealing with anyone.  I teach best with examples so here is a cogent one:


Image by Adam Sporka on Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.

An employee you supervise directly did not follow up on an important assignment you made to them in an appropriate way.  In fact, they were somewhat dismissive of it when you asked if they had completed the task, saying they had “been busy” and didn’t have time to get to that task.  Lets assume this has happened before with this person but not on anything so important as this particular task.

Start with these three assumptions before you confront them.

  1. You may not have communicated clearly what you wanted done, who was responsible and when you wanted it done by. In short, you may have somehow not given them all the information or the information with the correct emphasis to effectively have delegated that task.  I’d assume this even if you are dead sure you did all of the above. You may have done a great job communicating the assignment but that does not mean you were heard clearly i.e., communications are complex and we often have to check and see if the listener really heard what we offered up in our assignment.
  1. Assume that they were trying their very best to do that task and/or any assignment you have given. In fact, that is what you try to do everyday so why should it be any different for them.  My experience, whether you buy it or not, is that everyone is doing their best at any time.  If we start with this assumption then we are both giving them respect and we are also adjusting our tone in the communications so it is not sounding accusatory.
  1. Negative confrontation makes people defensive and resistant to what you have to say. In addition, communication is a very complex thing and, as often as not, we miscommunicate information in our first attempt.  Just keep remembering that no matter how well you may communicate, the other side of this is how well people listen.  You may be a great communicator, but if the other person isn’t any effective listener (an active listener who confirms what they heard) you may be making a significant assumption about what they heard.

Manager/Employee Apology Method

The supervisor used the apology method to resolve the situation. First, they called the employee in for a discussion.  The boss then laid out the situation with the following.

Apologies with a butterfly

Image by artethgray on Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.

I need to apologize to you.  A week ago I had a discussion with you in my office about some assignment(s).  Yesterday when I asked you about the status of that project, you indicated it was not completed and that you didn’t realize that I thought it was important and you had other higher priority work to complete.  I clearly must have failed to communicate that with you last week.  It was my intent to have you complete that project by this date, and to communicate that the task was a high priority. 

What I really want you to understand is that I know if I had communicated that clearly you would have either completed it effectively or come and talked to me about any issue that precluded you from doing that.  I am sorry if I failed to communicate effectively!  Because communications, even with our best intentions, are often not effective I will work on making sure I have communicated more clearly.  Specifically, if you will put up with this, I’ll review any assignments I make with you by asking you to tell me your understanding of the task, the timelines, and who is responsible for what part of the job.  In short, we will use a form of active listening where you tell me what you heard me tell you so that I can be sure I have communicated in a more successful way. 

Finally, I just want to wrap up this discussion by telling you that the task that I miscommunicated about has been completed so I don’t have any expectations that you take that up again as an assignment. I do apologize for any misunderstanding.

This way, the employee doesn’t have to take full responsibility for the failure and in this case they were off the hook, but clearly forewarned that next time will be done differently i.e., better more complete communications on your part as a supervisor.  That warns them that they must listen carefully, follow up and/or expect to be confronted if they fail after careful communications have occurred.  If they were just being lazy they will probably be more attentive.  If they just forgot then they have a chance to apologize themselves (which often happens).  If they did not understand the communications and you apologize, then they can say how they had heard or interpreted the original communication.  In short, it clarifies a lot of things without making the employee defensive and non productive.

Try the apology method next time you have a miscommunication or misunderstanding.  Please remember the three assumptions I mentioned above and you will find that you have substantially improved your effective communications.