When trust has broken down between people, it is time for a clearing conversation. This is a scripted and moderated dialogue between disconnected parties. Its purpose is to rebuild trust through listening, curiosity, and revealing stories.
Of course, it would be better to not get to this point. Clearing conversations are ultimately a process failure. It generally takes a while for trust to get this broken, with ample opportunities to fix it along the way.
How does trust fundamentally break down between people? Ultimately it's a combination of not feeling heard, withholding feedback, toxic story creation, and suspicion about each other's motivations.
What builds trust? Candid conversations where each side feels heard. Giving and receiving feedback. Overcoming shared adversity. Clearing up negative stories. Reaffirming shared goals and values.
A clearing conversation is a sign that some of those trust-building activities are not happening. Generally this manifests with feedback withholdings (e.g., one or both of the parties involved are afraid of giving each other feedback, or they've created a bunch of stories about each other that they're not clearing up).
But ... we're all human. Most of us are by default conflict avoidant, and even the best teams get into situations where people are at loggerheads. The good news is that clearing conversations are a tried and tested technique to resolve this. We've used them dozens of times at Clearbit to great effect.
Clearing conversation checklist
It is essential that you are willing to let go of being right and take responsibility before you attempt to use this model. If you haven't run one of these conversations before, make sure you have a moderator that has!
Here is a brief checklist before the conversation:
- Run your clearing as soon as possible.
- Try not to assume or jump to conclusions before the clearing.
- Understand where you are in the drama triangle Villain, Victim, Hero and brush up on Radical responsibility.
- Before starting ask, "am I above or below the line?"
- Use the template—seriously. The formula works.
- Have the courage to state how you feel and what you need. People are drawn to each other’s vulnerability but repelled by their own. Vulnerability isn’t weakness.
- Expect people to extend you the same courtesy. If someone makes you feel bad for stating your needs and feelings, then they don't belong at Clearbit.
Running a clearing conversion
The goal is to reveal yourself, own your projection, and re-establish connection. For effectiveness, stick to the script.
Most of the time there are three parties to the conversation:
- A person clearing the issue
- A person listening to understand
- A moderator managing the conversation (who ideally has either run one before or been trained by someone who has)
You begin by creating resolution.
Time and location
Clearing conversations should be run at a time and a place that are convenient to all parties. It's important that everyone is in a good “head space.”
Ideally these conversations are run in person and everyone is physically present. This is because humans naturally trust each other more when they're in the same vicinity. However, this is not always possible, and a remote clearing is better than no clearing.
Create resolution together
All parties look at each other and affirm the following (a nod is fine):
- I commit to curiosity and letting go of being right
- I commit to taking 100% responsibility for the issue
- I commit to creating a win-for-all resolution
Next, the parties commit that the other represents an important and valued relationship.
Script for person clearing the issue
It's important to stick to the following script (and the moderator should ensure this). For introverts (e.g., a lot of engineers) we find clearings more successful when people pre-prepare and write down their answers to the script. Other personality types prefer talking through the script verbally. Use whatever works, but make sure you keep to the script.
- “The specific FACTS are...” (Recordable facts; not judgments)
- “A STORY I make up about [you/me/the group] is...”
- “My FEELING is...” (Angry, Sad, Scared, Creative, Joyful)
- “I specifically WANT...” (This is not a demand or entitlement but instead a way to be known)
- “How I CREATED this disconnection with you is...”
- PROJECTION: “The part of me I see in you that I have an aversion/attraction to is..."
Script for person listening to understand
- “What I hear you saying is...” (Reflect or paraphrase without interpretation) “Is that RIGHT?” (If not, reflect again) “Is there MORE?” (Ask with curiosity)
- “Are you CLEAR? Have you said everything you have to say and felt everything you have to feel?” (If yes, move on. If not, go back to “Is there more?”)
- Is there a NEXT ACTION step? (If yes, who will do what by when?)
- Appreciate the person for choosing to clear the issue.
If the listener has an issue, it is recommended that you take some time to pause and then switch roles.
If the clearing has been run well, then both sides will have felt heard by the other. This is the first step in rebuilding trust.
You may have a bunch of action items coming out of the clearing that one or both parties have committed to do. It's important that these are written down during the meeting and ratified by all parties (otherwise there may be disagreements about what was agreed upon).