Deliver a tough message – without authority and without sweat

“My neck,” the manager said, “is on the guillotine.”

This manager had an influence problem. It involved a project team that didn’t report to him – but he was accountable for the results.

I was coaching him, during a workshop, on what to say.

His first draft: “When a project goes bad, I feel distraught, because of my neck …”

Years ago, I learned, and then modified, a method for stating your case from an excellent book: “People Skills,” by Robert Bolton.

The format (modified) sounds like this: “When X happens, I feel Y, because of Z.”

X is the problem; Y, your reaction; Z, the business impact.


Let’s critique the guillotined manager’s XYZ:

X: “When a project goes bad.”

Plus: His X avoids attacking or blaming. He didn’t say, “WHEN YOU SCREW UP a project.”

Minus: What does he mean by “a project goes bad?”

I picture food that’s gone bad – it’s turned an intriguing color and is now buried in the office refrigerator like an archaeological puzzle.

You wonder, What food group could this have possibly belonged to?

It’s best not to wonder, either about food or messages.

Let’s be specific. What the manager really meant was, “When we miss a deadline.”

Fine – say that.


Y: “I feel distraught.”

Plus: Saying how you feel tells the other person that the issue is important.

Minus: “Distraught” is too emotional for business. It’s like saying, “When we miss a deadline, I FEEL SO ABANDONED BY YOU.”

That’s heavy.

What’s a business-appropriate emotion? Try “concerned.”

You can be concerned that the project is late, concerned that customers will be unhappy, concerned that, in a moment of despair, you’ll probably eat the mystery food in the frig and die of food poisoning.

“Concerned” covers it all, with grace and, well, without concern.

Z: “Because my neck is on the line.”


Plus: Authentic.

Minus: The business impact should be larger than any of your body parts, or whether or not you look good.

Better: “Because our reputation is on the line,” or “because, if we miss a deadline, that hurts our customers.”

Let’s pull this XYZ together: “When we miss a deadline, I get concerned about the effect on our customers.”

Notice you haven’t imposed a solution. That’s the next step – dialogue.

Tip: Need to influence others? Make sure your message keeps them engaged.

© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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