The Right Way (and the wrong way) To Have Difficult Conversations
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Voyager, Rise (Season 3, Episode 19). He will examine the leadership approaches of Neelix....?
Yes, Neelix! He gives Jeff the opportunity to break down the 6 steps to having a successful, difficult conversation. The steps are:
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. The last thing most anyone wants to do is have a conversation with someone that isn’t going to feel good. But Neelix here gives me an opportunity to talk about the best way to have a difficult conversation as he and Tuvok go head-to-head in the 19th episode of the 3rd season of Voyager, Rise.
Oh my god!! <JOEY STYLES>> It’s bad CGI asteroids! Wait…is this Babylon 5? Ooh, shots fired, I know! Ok, I’m sorry, I know that’s not fair. This is 1997 and pretty amazing for the time and the medium.
The bridge crew, along with some aliens, are watching an asteroid hurtle towards a planet. “Fire.” They expected to vaporize the asteroid, but it just fragmented. They start targeting them, but two are going to impact the planet. This has been going on for a few days before Voyager got involved, but the aliens, the Nezu, had the same results.
The damage from these fragments weren’t too bad, but in 6 hours, another asteroid is on its way and looks like it’ll hit the major population centers. Sklar, the ambassador’s assistant, is encouraging evacuation but there just isn’t time. “We haven’t time to evacuate all those people.”
They get a notification that things aren’t what they seem; the asteroids have artificial materials in them. Dr Vatim (Vay-tim) wants to meet with the ambassador, directly, but the communication fails. They want to go to him, but they’re not sure where he is and transporters aren’t working and a shuttle journey will be precarious. Janeway commits to helping, though. “In for a penny, in for a pound.” The ambassador doesn’t want to risk any of the Voyager crew but she says they are there to help and are going to.
They put together 3 shuttles to head down. Torres, the chief engineer, asks for pieces of the asteroid fragments so she can do an analysis of them.
Neelix is way excited. He asked to be on the mission and Janeway said he could, as part of his Starfleet training. “I got assigned to Tuvok’s team and I can’t seem to please him.” Remember this moment…sets the stage for the rest of this podcast episode.
Shuttles are headed down. Tuvok, Neelix and Sklar are on the Sacajawea. Sklar is not handling the turbulence well. They hit a rough layer in the atmosphere and have to make a crash landing. They’re shaken up but not hurt too bad. Dr Vatim and another miner are, conveniently, right at the crash site. Sklar tries to get the info on the asteroids from him but he refuses. Tuvok says he’s there on behalf of the ambassador so he can share with him, but Vatim refuses again. He will only speak with the ambassador.
The shuttle is totaled. Tuvok wants to focus repairs on the comm system so they can send a distress signal. He and Neelix immediately clash. Tuvok wants him to do a damage assessment on the exterior but Neelix feels like he can start repairs. “Torres has taught me about shuttles. The damage report, Mr. Neelix.” Outside, though, he sees an orbital tether. He offers that they can ride that up out of the ionosphere and contact Voyager. Dr Vatim says the carriage is damaged, but Neelix has some ideas, between his training with Torres and 2 years that he spent on a tether back on his home planet of Rinax. Tuvok doesn’t like it, though. Neelix pleads with him and he reluctantly agrees.
They get to the base of the tether and Neelix is assessing the situation. When suddenly, a woman leaps out from the dark, grabs Neelix and holds a knife to his throat! She says everyone needs to stay away or she’ll kill him. The camera holds on Tuvok’s face here, and, even though he’s Vulcan and doesn’t express emotion, I feel like he’s doing some quick calculus and considering just letting her do it! But, he doesn’t. They put their weapons down and step away. She is protecting the base as her shelter during the asteroid impacts. Neelix nervously explains the plan and she lets him go. She even agrees to help as long as she can head up on the carriage with them. Neelix starts putting people to work and we learn that, in addition to the damage Dr Vatim mentioned, there is also limited oxygen. So…the plot thickens.
Torres is ripping into one of the asteroid fragments with Chakotay and the ambassador. They find a triadium based guidance system inside of it! “I feel like these asteroids aren’t striking your planet by chance.”
Repairs are going well on the carriage. Neelix decides to name it after his favorite sister, Alixia. Apparently it’s good luck. Tuvok and Neelix clash a few times “You have spent as much time in idle conversation as you have making repairs.” Neelix tries to stand up for himself, but Tuvok is having none of it. He is stern and short with him, constantly reminding Neelix that this is a life-threatening situation.
As they start prepping stuff to load onto the carriage, Dr Vatim locks himself in the carriage and starts launch procedures. Tuvok busts in, but he’s too late. The launch sequence is in full effect. The carriage is headed up long before they were ready for it to.
Neelix is steering the carriage and working to get a stable ascent. He’s giving orders, everyone is following them – this is his stakes, full emergency stuff! He finally hits “47km/hr” and stabilizes the carriage. In the mess of it all, they ruptured one of the oxygen converters. Neelix says they’ll run out about halfway up if they can’t repair it. He also says that because of leaving early, he’ll need to manually steer the carriage the whole way. As he’s explaining things, it comes out that Neelix never actually worked on carriages. No, he built 1/10 scale models of them. He’s totally a model train enthusiast that just got the chance to actually be the engineer on a real train. “You built models.” Yikes. Not a good play, Neelix.
On the bridge, Harry Kim reports there is a massive asteroid on its way and will arrive in about 2 hours. Janeway is worried.
On the carriage, oxygen is thin. People are struggling to breathe. Tuvok is injecting the riders with a compound to help them through this. Some of them are also drinking what I’m guessing is water. Sklar, the assistant to the ambassador is worried about the injection hurting. He is very much being the worrier on board. Acknowledging that Tuvok, because he’s Vulcan, may be the only once conscious at some point, Neelix starts to teach him how to pilot the carriage but Vatim suddenly tries to open the door to the outside! He says there’s something on the roof, and then suddenly dies. They assume he suffocated, but Tuvok finds that his water was poisoned.
Neelix wants to stop the carriage and see what Dr Vatim was talking about. Tuvok shuts him down, though, “I’m not interested in your funny feeling.” He says stopping the carriage will cause them to lose magnetic cohesion, and the carriage will crash, killing them all.
Neelix stops the carriage and unloads on Tuvok! He’s tired of being ignored and treated poorly. Lillias stands up for him too. “You’re dismissive and condescending.” Tuvok listens, and continues to disagree with Neelix’s plan. So Neelix strikes! He’s the only one that can pilot the carriage and he refuses to budge. That gets Tuvok to take action. He says he’ll go up onto the roof. “I am looking for Mr Neelix’s instinct.” Biting to the end – he refuses to let Neelix win this one.
Up on the roof, he finds a data pad under a panel. He reports this to Neelix; says it holds info on an alien starship. Immediately, Sklar heads out onto the roof! He injures Neelix on his way out and attacks Tuvok. He tosses him over the side of the carriage, grabs the data pad, and heads back in! Inside, the riders want to know what happened. “Mr Tuvok returned to the surface.”
On Voyager, the asteroid comes into visual range, and it’s not an asteroid at all. It’s a massive vessel with over 2,000 people on it. They reach out to Voyager and say they claim this planet. Janeway isn’t having that, “Battle Stations.”
On the carriage, Neelix sees Tuvok through a window! He caught himself on the way down and is climbing to the door. Neelix, injured and slow, drags himself to the door and opens it to let Tuvok back in. He and Sklar go at it with Sklar really giving it to him! Tuvok eventually gets the upper hand and ends up shoving Sklar through the door!
Tuvok thanks Neelix for opening the door. He assumes that Sklar must have wanted to keep the alien starship data a secret. Neelix has a concussion and is struggling to get back to the controls. Tuvok gives him a pep talk saying that his sister, Alixia, would be proud of him. Neelix makes his way to the controls and gets them to communication range.
Voyager and the aliens are in a firefight. It is very one-sided and Voyager’s time is limited. Somehow, Neelix, Tuvok and crew get beamed over and they share the data pad. This lets them cut through their shields. Two non-lethal shots later and they’re retreating. The ambassador wants to know what happened to Sklar, “He returned to the surface.” Ooh, sick burn, Neelix!
We find out that the invading aliens send these asteroids at planets to get the inhabitants to evacuate. Once they’re gone, they sweep in and take over the planet. Dr Vatim found out about this and was trying to stop it while Sklar had, obviously, become a double agent.
Tuvok and Neelix talk as the episode comes to an end. Tuvok says he gave Neelix a special commendation in his mission report for bravery. BUT, he still can’t let it go. “One day, your intuition will fail.” Neelix takes it in stride, though, “I’ll get you to trust your gut.”
If you know me, you know how I feel about Neelix. But I also like to think I’m fair about my feelings on him! Back in the Starfleet Leadership Academy episode on Voyager Homestead, I sang his praises. I’m not quite there with him on this one, but I do think this is an important episode for him.
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There is a cool idea buried in this episode. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really get a lot of screen time. In Star Trek, and a lot of sci-fi, when people talk about invading colonies or taking over planets, I think we all envision a lot of battles, phaser fire and casualties. The idea here, of using natural disasters to get people to just leave, is a kind of cool idea, from a sci-fi perspective.
Outside of that, we have stakes around going 47 km/hr – a cool 47 reference there, falling 30 km, and slowly fading oxygen. I guess what I’m kind of driving at is that this was a pretty boring episode. Now I didn’t hate it at all! But, aside from Neelix’s outburst that I’ll talk about in the Command Codes section, there really isn’t much that happens in this one.
There are some fans that call this a part of what they call the Trilogy of Terror, three episodes that are just bad. Darkling, Favorite Son and this one. I will tell you, that, without a doubt, that’s not fair. This is not at all a terrible episode. And, if you’re a fan of the Tuvok and Neelix relationship, this might even be called an excellent episode! While I appreciate their relationship, I’m not in the camp that would call this excellent, but it’s certainly worth a watch.
We get just a few moments of Janeway in this episode, but, as she does, she demonstrates what strong leadership does as she commits to helping the Nezu through to the end. But the real takeaway in this episode, the one we’re going to spend some time on, is the value of having difficult conversations. It is not easy to stand up for yourself. It’s not easy to tell someone you report to that you disagree with them. And Neelix, yes, Neelix opens the door for me to really dive into how to have these invaluable conversations.
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Let’s talk about Janeway real quick. “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Kinda corny, yeah, but it shows incredible integrity. She made a commitment to help the Nezu against these asteroids that were endangering them. Things started getting really difficult. Bad enough, really, that the ambassador gave her and the crew an easy out. But she refused to take it. She made a commitment and she honored that. It’s easy to help when things are easy. When they’re not, well, it’s not. What separates a strong leader from the rest, is the one that continues to help even when it isn’t easy to.
Ok, now let’s get to Neelix and difficult conversations. Right out of the gate, I want to say that Neelix did not do this in the best possible way. But, he did it. And that puts him at the head of the pack, as it were. You see, the harsh reality here is that, according to an anecdotal study, done by me, well, right now in my head, I’d say that about 97.14% of all difficult conversations that need to happen…never do.
I want to say that again. Most difficult conversations that need to happen, never do. And that is a crime. The conversations aren’t easy, but, honestly, everyone benefits from them. These are things that need to be said and need to be heard. So, if you hear nothing else in this podcast, hear this: go have that difficult conversation you’ve been needing to have. Do it!
Difficult conversations can be a lot of things. They happen at work and in our personal lives. These are conversations where you may have news to deliver that the other person may not want to hear, or needing to let someone know that something went wrong, or, like Neelix does, when a relationship needs attention.
And they aren’t a thing that only supervisors have! These conversations can come from anyone, but there is often additional anxiety when that conversation needs to go “up” the org chart. But we’re going to leverage emotional intelligence as a guide for having the conversations and managing that anxiety.
So let’s start with a quick review of emotional intelligence. I go into more detail on EQ in a few other episodes. Listen to TOS: A private little war and ENT: The Catwalk for more. But there are 5 dimensions of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. These all play a role in having an effective difficult conversation.
Ok, now that we have that as our foundation, and we’ll build it in as we go, let’s look at the structure of having that conversation. Step one is identifying that the conversation needs to happen. Step 2 might be one you hadn’t considered. In my experience, many people don’t consider this step, and it is critical. PREPARE!
John Wooden, who I have quoted before; he’s the legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden says, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” And that absolutely applies to a difficult conversation. You need to think about what you are going to say and even how you are going to say it. Almost more importantly, you need to – here’s that emotional intelligence – be aware of the emotions you have around this topic. From there, you can practice self-regulation around them.
A difficult conversation almost always has emotion surrounding it, but the focus of the conversation shouldn’t be driven by those emotions. Your feelings need to be expressed and acknowledged, but you also need to root your conversation in facts and observations.
So, if I want to have a conversation with you about the way you always make cracks about my receding hairline…and, yes, this is from a true story in my current role…and I don’t think through my approach, I don’t prepare, and I’m not aware of my emotions and I don’t self-regulate, and then I come at you like, “Dude!!! Knock it off! You’re a jerk and I hate it when you tell me how much bigger my forehead is than our last meeting!” You’re probably not going to be open to more discussion or hearing me out. You’re going to get defensive and not feel very good about anything that happens next.
Instead, if I take some time to prepare and I reach out to you ahead of time and tell you I’d like to talk about some observations I’ve made and how they’ve made me feel, when we do meet, I’m going to be able to present my side in a way you are much more likely to hear. “I want to talk with you because I’ve noticed that every time we meet, you make a joke about my hairline. I don’t like that and it doesn’t feel good when you say those things.” And we’re off! You’re open to hear what I have to say and we can proceed!
You’ll notice I said I let the person know that I wanted to talk to them about something ahead of time. This is another step that is often missed. You can’t just drop a difficult topic on someone out of the blue and expect them to be there for it. Giving them some notice can give them the time needed to prepare themselves, as you are preparing yourself, for a tough talk.
A quick example. I’ve mentioned before a position I had as a direct supervisor that was basically a wide-awake nightmare, especially in how we treated people. Well, that was a union shop, so we were required offer what are called Weingarten Rights; if an interaction could result in discipline or termination, the employee has a right to have a union steward present. So, we were required to give some advance notice for these conversations. BUT, we did it in totally the wrong way. Earlier, I said something like, I’d like to talk about some observations I’ve made and how they’ve made me feel, to set up the meeting. More ideally, I’d actually mention the jokes at my expense or even the hairline in that setup; totally give the other person time to prepare as well. So, in this job, we had a boilerplate notice we’d offer that basically said, we’re going to meet and you can have a steward there. Period. No mas. All that did was heighten anxiety and immediately make the person defensiveness. And nothing good comes from that. So, let the person know that this conversation is coming.
Where and how you meet matters too. Ideally, you want to meet in person, or as in-person as possible. I, personally, count Zoom or Teams or whatever as being in-person; but only when both people have their cameras on. But when you meet, you want to eliminate or diffuse any power differential. I’m your manager and I have an office – we will not meet in my office! Maybe we go get a coffee, or head to a conference room we’re both comfortable in. Once you have that, work to match eye levels. Don’t stand while they sit, or vice-versa. Don’t sit in a cushy, faux leather chair that’s pushed up super high. No, sit as equally as possible. If you’re meeting virtually, I recommend blurring your background or having shared backgrounds. This just reduces opportunities for distractions or perceptions of power differential. Ok, now you’re ready.
Now there are some much more intense conversations than jokes about my hairline that I know you are thinking about that need to happen. Poor job performance, dishonesty, maybe even outright harassment, discrimination or racism. I think it’s a good idea, that once you have prepared, you’ve notified them, you’ve identified a neutral place to meet and you are talking, it’s a good idea to establish some ground rules. These accomplish two super important things. First, it offers the rules of engagement; you’re both operating from the same rulebook. Second, it gives you your second win – an agreement! The first win is coming together for the conversation. The goal of a difficult conversation, the ideal goal, is a shared, agreed upon solution or set of next steps. So coming up with ground rules sets the tone of seeking agreement.
And now you’re doing it. You start with your prepared statement that you worked on back in the preparation step. From there, you want to factual, objective statements. For me, there are two of these I keep at the top of my toolbox: I have observed, or I have noticed, and That makes me feel. This keeps the discussion focused on facts and also acknowledges emotions. And then listen. Listen openly and without judgement. Don’t be accusatory. Instead of “you did this terrible thing!!” you’d say, “I have observed you doing this thing and it has this impact.” This is where you apply add empathy and social skills to the other dimensions of emotional intelligence you’ve already brought to focus.
The discussion, usually, shouldn’t be about proving you are right and they are wrong. I mean, when it comes to breaking the law, or being racist, or harassing someone, yes, this is a part of it, but it’s not the ideal end. The ideal outcome to this conversation is a shared agreement. Agreeing on a solution and next steps. Once you’ve achieved that – hooray! You’ve had a successful difficult conversation!
But it doesn’t end there. Now you need to follow up to be sure that both of you are following through on your agreement. These follow ups should be agreed on in the conversation. So thank them for the conversation and then offer a follow up approach. “Thank you for your time. I really appreciate it and am glad we were able to come to this agreement. I’d like to follow up, and would like you to do the same, to be sure we both do what we’ve agreed to. How about next Tuesday we connect for 15 minutes for a quick check-in.” You know, or whatever it looks like based on your conversation.
So, to summarize this, at a high level, there are 6 steps to a successful difficult conversation: Preparation, notification, neutralizing power differential in the meeting place, set ground rules, agree on next steps and follow up.
Let’s dissect what Neelix did here and see if there’s a better way for him to have done this. To put the end at the beginning, in the episode he gives a big part of his motivation after he confronts Tuvok, “It’s strange, I like him…” He wants a friendly relationship with Tuvok. He also wants to be recognized as a peer and a professional. Now, let’s listen in:
“You’re going to listen to me!” 30:45
First, let’s acknowledge the high intensity of the moment and the years of pent-up emotion Neelix has. This is what often occurs in those 97.14% of difficult conversations that don’t happen. The feelings build up and then result in an explosion. Wouldn’t it be cool if, before this occurrence, Neelix followed the steps above? He took time to prepare, he let Tuvok know he wanted to meet, they found a neutral place to meet and established ground rules. This would have looked a lot different. Ok, moving on.
“You are emotionally distraught. I’m tired of being the target of your contempt.”
Ok, ok. Not great, but, again valid because of the situation. Well, mostly valid. When stepping through the structure of a difficult conversation I talked about two things that apply here: being objective and not being judgmental. Well, Neelix missed the boat on those ones. It’s played as cold and unfeeling here, and it kind of was, given the situation, but Tuvok tried to do the right thing and put this conversation off until Neelix had a chance to collect his thoughts, prepare, and have a meaningful discussion. But because Neelix was one of the 97.14% for so long, the volcano has started erupting and it ain’t stopping!
“I have no feelings towards Mr. Neelix.”
This is better! Neelix was listening and was able to articulate his point based on what Tuvok said.
“You made it obvious you had no respect for me.”
This is well stated. He’s still accusing Tuvok, but he is describing his feelings in a way that opens the door to real discussion and understanding. Until, that is, he starts accusing again.
“You don’t have any instincts, no gut feelings.”
Any time you want to use a “you” statement, try to flip into an “I” statement. He could have said, “I’ve noticed you don’t follow your instincts. I’ve seen that you dismiss gut feelings. Here’s why I think that’s bad.” You see, he’s saying the same things but in a way that invite Tuvok to listen instead of defending his actions.
“I disagree. FINE!”
And I would too. If Neelix came at me, Warp 9.97 with shields up and torpedoes loaded, I’d disagree too and be ready to double-down on everything I had done.
So, kudos to Neelix for at least having the conversation. That puts him in my top 2.86th percentile. But, because he didn’t follow the steps and the structure, he didn’t get that agreement. He should have prepared for this conversation, notified Tuvok they were going to have the discussion in a neutral place and then set up ground rules. From there, they could have an objective discussion that could lead to an agreement. Instead, they both have to nearly die and come through for each other for them to find any common ground.
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Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
Oh, this is a classic! From The Next Generation’s second season, the 16th episode. Q Who. In 47 episodes, this is the second time we’ll meet Q, the first time, we or anyone, will see the Borg. I mean, we’ve talked a lot about 7 of 9 and some of her stuff, and there was Family where we saw the aftermath of the Borg. But in this one…it’s The Borg! I’ll see you then, and remember – Resistance is Futile!
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!