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How to Have a Brave Conversation using PlayFAIR

“Help!  I need to prepare for a brave conversation with my cousin Miranda tomorrow,” said Dillon, CEO of the manufacturing company his grandfather started.  “Miranda has been with the company for 24 years – she joined the HR team right out of college – and she’s become a great asset as VP of HR, but now she wants to slow down and work part time.”  His bright eyes began to furrow.


”Last year, she hired an impressive HR Director, Ezra, who’s been covering for Miranda while she spent February in Hawaii, and Ezra is taking HR to a whole new level,” continued Dillon, his eyes brightening back up. “But tomorrow, we’re discussing her request to work part time. We could use Miranda for a few months, but Ezra can do this job and more.  We’re just not going to need Miranda in a few months.”  He looked up.  “How do I have this conversation? I want to do right by her, and I also want to do right by the shareholders.”


I asked Dillon what values were in conflict.  He shared that on one hand, he valued his cousin and her dedication to the company, and he wanted to show her respect for her good work and loyalty.  On the other hand, he valued efficient operations and delivering adequate investment returns for shareholders, all of whom were also family.


“Hey, can you refresh my memory on how to have a brave conversation using that PlayFAIR model?” he asked.  “I think this situation calls for it.”


PlayFAIR is a mnemonic which stands for:


·      Permission

·      Facts

·      Assumptions

·      Impact

·      Request


How to Have a Brave Conversation

The PlayFAIR model offers a five-step framework to address a challenging topic.  It flows like this:


1.     PermissionDo you have some time to talk? This should take about X minutes.”

Make sure you have enough time for the conversation and that both parties are prepared to engage. The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. It’s okay to share the topic if asked.


2.     FactsI noticed that . . .

Start by stating the facts and only the indisputable facts. Starting with “I noticed . . .” implies a neutral observation. Be careful not to interpret the facts. For example, “You were short-tempered” is an assumption, not a fact. “Your voice grew louder, and your face reddened” is a fact.


3.     AssumptionI’m telling myself that . . .” or “My story is . . .

Share your interpretation of the facts. This is the story you are telling yourself about the facts. It’s important to “own” your story because it leaves room for other interpretations to coexist. Plus, if you state your story as “the truth,” you may trigger defensiveness. Your goal is to keep egos to a minimum and curiosity to a maximum.


4.     ImpactThe impact of this is . . .”

State the relevant impact on you, others, and/or the organization to put it into a broader context. State what makes this important to address and watch your tone. Don’t whine. Stay matter-of-fact to the extent appropriate.


5.     RequestI’d like to resolve this . . .” or I have a request . . .

Express a desire to resolve the issue or make a request if you have one. Then listen with sincere curiosity to understand the other person’s perspective. Paraphrase what you hear and ask, “Is that right?” until the other person affirms, “That’s right.” Remember, you don’t have to agree with it to understand it.


“Right, thanks,” he said.  “Let me rehearse a conversation with Miranda using PlayFAIR.” Here’s what he drafted:


1.     Permission:  The meeting was already scheduled so permission was implied.

2.     Facts: “Dillon, while you were away last month, Ezra took the lead in HR, and he did well.  In fact, I noticed that he proposed some innovative new programs that could uplevel the plant associates and enhance company culture.  Ezra is a great asset to the team. Credit to you for bringing him on board to support your request to work at 75% of full time.”

3.     Assumptions: “I’m assuming you already know how much I appreciate you personally and how valuable you’ve been to the company for over two decades..  I’m also assuming you would like to retain part-time employment indefinitely while retaining full-time benefits and a 25% reduction in salary.”

4.     Impact: “Here’s my challenge.  I want to honor your request to work part-time.  I also believe we need a full-time HR leader, and Ezra can do the job. I’d like to promote him to VP. The impact of retaining you at 75% of your full-time salary is that we will have two highly paid HR leaders and not enough work to justify the compensation. I am torn between wanting to do right by you and wanting to do right by the shareholders.” 

5.     Resolution: “I’d like to talk about this openly.  As VP of HR, I know you understand the budget constraints and the strategic issues in play from an organizational design perspective. How do you see this situation?  Do you see it the same way I do, or do you see it differently?”

How to Have a Brave Conversation

 At our next coaching conversation, I could see relief in his smile.  “It went better than my best hopes,” said Dillon.  “Miranda appreciated my candor and understood the dilemma I faced as CEO.  She asked for a few days to think about it, and last Friday she acknowledged that her extended time in Hawaii gave her time to reflect on her career goals.  She wants to start her own coaching business serving family business leaders! She offered to stay part-time for three months to fully transition the VP role to Ezra before she starts training to be a coach.  What a win for everyone!” he said, beaming.


And I’m happy to have another talented family business coach join the field.


To learn more about how to have a brave conversation in a family businesses, join my mailing list. That should tide you over until Hug of War: Leading a Family Business With both Love and Logic is released in July 2024!

PS: I’m still beta testing the family business polarity assessment so leaders can see how well they are leveraging the most common tensions in family business leadership.  To access the assessment, join my mailing list and check the box next to “Please send me the complementary family business assessment.” 

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