Think about the last heated debate you had with a loved one.

It could have been about serious issues of the day like levels of football match attendance, whether it is right and proper to kick 10 barrels of wotsit out of the ironing board when your team concede a goal on the SKY game or whether it is really vital that when you return an item to the fridge you put it back exactly where you found it (Mr TLF if you are reading this, of course it DOES).

Whatever the topic, chances are that the end result of the debate wasn’t that pretty, didn’t sort anything out and came served with side orders of sulking, shouting and perhaps a dusting of door slamming. The same thing can of course happen at the day job (although I would hope the topics of debate are not the same). My employer recently sent a bunch of us on a course, Crucial Conversations, which looked at how to get a bit better at dealing with the difficult conversations. I should add I don’t think they were concerned about domestic bliss Chez TLF but more focussed on improving the leadership skills of its middle managers – the squeezed middle as we like to call ourselves these days.

The course was for once, a good un. Interesting stuff, great trainer. We were taught a series of steps to manage more successfully these difficult conversations rather than avoiding them completely or kicking off like Atilla the Hun. The first thing I found out was that the course wasn’t about winning the difficult conversations. But nor was it about losing them (now I was confused). It was about dealing with a tricky issue with both parties still respecting each other at the end of it and no blood having been spilt. You may scoff, but borrow the book off me – it speaks some sense (sometimes in a slightly overly American way I admit).

Having of course a slightly random and off centre TLF kind of head I did start to wonder whether you could apply this to football. Think about it. A crucial conversation is defined as one where there are opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes at play. Imagine the ref has just dropped a big gold plated boll#ck of a bad decision that is very likely to alter the outcome of the game. All three boxes are definitely ticked.

So let’s apply the steps from the course:
1 Assess the situation – is this a one off or a pattern of behaviour?
Has the ref got it wrong just this once or have they been a complete tool all game?
2 Start with the heart – consider how you are behaving, the result you really want and whether your behaviour is really going to lead to the result that you really want.
Hmm. I would like the referee to change his mind and for the game to get back on track. Perhaps the last 10 minutes where I was comparing him to an overweight and under educated throwback of questionable parentage has damaged our relationship and I should moderate my approach.
3 Master your stories – it can be easy to decide in your head why someone has done something so that you can justify your own behaviour. Ask whether you are considering the full picture and your role in this problem.
Perhaps the ref is not a complete tool. Perhaps he was unsighted and did not do this out of sheer stupidity and malice and would be grateful for some measured feedback.
4 Express your views in a way that makes it safe for others to hear them – share your facts and talk tentatively. Test their views. That will mean you are candid and also respectful.
Hi ref. Do you have a minute? I couldn’t help noticing that when the opposition player performed an Olympic style dive you awarded a free kick and sent one of our boys off. From over here that looks a little at odds with the laws of the game and it is starting to feel like you don’t trust my team. I’d really like to understand how you see it.

Obviously by the time you have got to this stage, the game will have moved on, your fellow supporters will be looking at you like you have had one too many Stellas (if such a thing is possible) and it will probably have dawned on you that TLF is clutching at an ever thinning straw on this particular occasion. The theory (and we won’t even mention the remaining 5 stages) does not apply to football and it’s best all round if you just let the ref know that you look forward to seeing him or her next Tuesday.

Management guru Fox

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