Holly Weeks Communications


Holly Weeks

Harvard Business School Press:

“Brilliant. Weeks reveals important insights and helps readers develop skills fundamental to being an effective manager.”— Robert S. Scalea, Chief Strategy Officer, JWT North America

Your stomach's churning; you're hyperventilating — you're in a badly deteriorating conversation at work. Such exchanges are so loaded with anger, confusion, and fear that most people handle them poorly: they avoid them, clamp down, or give in.

In Failure to Communicate, Holly Weeks shows how to master the combat mentality, emotional maelstrom, and confusion that poison difficult conversations. Drawing on her many years as a consultant and coach to leaders and executives, the author explains:

• Why we turn to ineffective tactics when the heat is on
• How to avoid the worst pitfalls of difficult conversations, and how to pull yourself out if you fall in
• Ways to regain your balance and inject respect into stressful conversations
• Strategies for mitigating aggression and defensiveness, and for clearing the fog of misconceptions
• How to get through the hardest conversations with your reputation and relationships intact

Using proven techniques paired with detailed real-life examples, Weeks equips you with the strategies and practices you need to transform even the toughest conversations.

Harvard Business Review (October 2008)
Forethought Review by Andrew O'Connell

Mike and Jack are in deep trouble. Back in college the two Grateful Dead fans were hockey teammates, but now Mike is floundering as a senior vice president in his old friend’s concrete-products company. Jack asking him to handle the sensitive task of outsourcing the sales function, and Mike’s blunt style left longtime employees feeling alienated and scared. Jack lashes out: “I had no idea a smart guy like you could know so little about people and make so many mistakes.” Mike’s job is on the line, and the friendship is pretty much shot. The real problem isn’t with either of the antagonists or even tier working styles. It’s that they’re enmeshed in what Holly Weeks, in hier taxonomy of dysfunctional communications, labels a toxic conversation. It’s but one type of difficult conversation that crops up frequently in business, and Weeks provides step-by-step tactics to help people successfully get through—not around—all of them.

Aware that it’s highly likely that both the reader and his or her counterpart will be using this handbook simultaneously, Weeks wisely focuses on what a person can do unilaterally to maneuver emotionally laden, combative conversations. Drawing from her communications consulting practice and her experience in coaching executives, she shows how one person can defuse a conversation, not by attempting to control it but by easing our of combat mode and showing respect, thus encouraging the other person to do the same. All her tactics, in fact, are built on respect—for the self, the counterpart and the problem at hand. indeed, she stresses the importance of acknowledging that the problem, whatever it may be, is serious and difficult and must be dealt with.

Examples on practically every page show colleagues getting into trouble, sometimes making it worse, sometimes extricating themselves, and sometimes going back after an altercation to patch things up. The examples are followed by lucid analyses that for the most part leave jargon behind and introduce concepts such as conversational “blueprints” and “immunization” against counterparts’ “thwarting ploys.” The analyses occasionally even light up the intellect by quoting the likes of Joan Didion and David Mamet.

Perhaps most helpful is Weeks’s emphasis on honing conversational skill. Although people may suspect that conversational skill involves manipulation, Weeks points out that it is crucial and should be practiced. She shows how to conduct a mock conversation, starting with a self-interview and concluding with an imagined conversation with the counterpart. Returning to Mike and his old buddy Jack, she even shows how Mike himself could start repairing the damage that was done when Jack blindsided and undermined him. She offers no guarantee that Jack will respond positively, but the “recovery conversation” she outlines can only make things better. This is especially important in senior-level relationships, which are inevitably interpreted by, and set an example for, just about everyone else in the company.

Selected Works

How to Disarm Combative Conversations
Harvard Management Update
Harvard Business Review
Harvard Management Update
Harvard Management Communications Letter
Staying with No
Face-to-Face Communications
Harvard Business School Publishing Guide to Better Business Writing
The Best Memo You’ll Ever Write
First published in Harvard Management Communication Letter
O, the Oprah Magazine
"How to Say the Hard Things" by Brett Martin
Panel of experts on difficult communications