Having difficult conversations is a natural part of everyday life! How do we prepare for and engage in difficult conversations?
Think of a difficult conversation you have been avoiding. Got it? Great. Let’s focus on it and prepare…
In this article I have developed a series of strategies, created a checklist of action items to think about before having that difficult conversation, put together some useful concepts to practice during the conversation, and gathered some tips and suggestions to help you stay focused and flowing in general, including possible conversation openings.
You’ll notice one key theme throughout: you have more power than you think.
Working on Yourself: How To Prepare for the Conversation
Before going into the conversation, ask yourself some questions:
- What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? What would be an ideal outcome? Watch for hidden purposes. You may think you have honorable goals, only to notice that your language is excessively critical or condescending. You think you want to support, but you end up punishing. Some purposes are more useful than others. Work on yourself so that you enter the conversation with a supportive purpose.
- What assumptions are you making about this person’s intentions? You may feel intimidated, belittled, ignored, disrespected, or marginalized, but be cautious about assuming that this was the speaker’s intention. Impact does not necessarily equal intent.
- What “buttons” of yours are being pushed? Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? What personal history is being triggered? You may still have the conversation, but you’ll go into it knowing that some of the heightened emotional state has to do with you.
- How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it? If you think this is going to be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.
- Who is the other? What might he be thinking about this situation? Is he aware of the situation? If so, how do you think he perceives it? What are his needs and fears? What solution do you think he would suggest? Begin to reframe the other as your partner.
- What are your needs and fears? Are there any common concerns? Could there be?
- How have you contributed to the problem? How has the other person?
4 Steps to a Successful Outcome
The majority of the work in any difficult conversation is work you do on yourself. No matter how well the conversation begins, you’ll need to stay in charge of yourself, your purpose and your emotional energy. Breathe, center, and continue to notice when you become off center… This is where your power lies. By choosing the calm, centered state, you’ll help your opponent/partner to be more centered, too. Centering is not a step; centering is how you are as you take the steps.
Step #1: Inquiry
Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. Pretend you don’t know anything, and try to learn as much as possible about your opponent/partner and his point of view. Pretend you’re entertaining a visitor from another planet, and find out how things look on that planet, how certain events affect the other person, and what the values and priorities are there.
If your partner really was from another planet, you’d be watching his body language and listening for unspoken energy as well. Do that here. What does he really want? What is he not saying?
Let your partner talk until he is finished. Don’t interrupt except to acknowledge. Whatever you hear, don’t take it personally. It’s not really about you. Try to learn as much as you can in this phase of the conversation. You’ll get your turn, but don’t rush things.
Step #2: Acknowledgment
Acknowledgment means showing that you’ve heard and understood. Try to understand the other person so well you can make his argument for him. Then do it. Explain back to him what you think he’s really going for. Guess at his hopes and honor his position. He will not change unless he sees that you see where he stands. Then he might. No guarantees.
Acknowledge whatever you can, including your own defensiveness if it comes up. It’s fine; it just is. You can decide later how to address it. For example, in an argument with a friend, I said: “I notice I’m becoming defensive, and I think it’s because your voice just got louder and sounded angry. I just want to talk about this topic. I’m not trying to persuade you in either direction.” The acknowledgment helped him (and me) to re-center.
Acknowledgment can be difficult if we associate it with agreement. Keep them separate. My saying, “this sounds really important to you,” doesn’t mean I’m going to go along with your decision.
Step #3: Advocacy
When you sense your opponent/partner has expressed all his energy on the topic, it’s your turn. What can you see from your perspective that he’s missed? Help clarify your position without minimizing his. For example: “From what you’ve told me, I can see how you came to the conclusion that I’m not a team player. And I think I am. When I introduce problems with a project, I’m thinking about its long-term success. I don’t mean to be a critic, though perhaps I sound like one. Maybe we can talk about how to address these issues so that my intention is clear.”
Step #4: Problem-Solving
Now you’re ready to begin building solutions. Brainstorming and continued inquiry are useful here. Ask your opponent/partner what he thinks might work. Whatever he says, find something you like and build on it. If the conversation becomes adversarial, go back to inquiry. Asking for the other’s point of view usually creates safety and encourages him to engage. If you’ve been successful in centering, adjusting your attitude, and engaging with inquiry and useful purpose, building sustainable solutions will be easy.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The art of conversation is like any art – with continued practice you will acquire skill and ease.
Here are some additional tips and suggestions:
- A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (centered, supportive, curious, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say.
- Acknowledge emotional energy – yours and your partner’s – and direct it toward a useful purpose.
- Know and return to your purpose at difficult moments.
- Don’t take verbal attacks personally. Help your opponent/partner come back to the center.
- Don’t assume your opponent/partner can see things from your point of view.
- Practice the conversation with a friend before holding the real one.
- Mentally practice the conversation. See various possibilities and visualize yourself handling them with ease. Envision the outcome you are hoping for.
Tips For Handling Difficult Conversations
We all have an inner voice that tells us when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone—a conversation that, if it took place, would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else on our team. But fear drowns that inner voice—and we put the conversation off. Meanwhile the offending individual continues to provide substandard performance, miss deadlines, engage in interpersonal conflicts and exhibit toxic behavior.
The consequence of not having that uncomfortable conversation is costly. Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it. If you’re unsure of how to best approach a crucial conversation, here are some tips to guide you:
Be clear about the issue.
To prepare for the conversation, you need to ask yourself two important questions: “What exactly is the behavior that is causing the problem?” and “What is the impact that the behavior is having on you, the team or the organization?” You need to reach clarity for yourself so you can articulate the issue in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation. The lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.
What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome? What are the non-negotiables? As English philosopher Theodore Zeldin put it: A successful conversation “doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” What are the new cards that you want to have in your hands by the end of the conversation? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Don’t end without clearly expressed action items. What is the person agreeing to do? What support are you committed to provide? What obstacles might prevent these remedial actions from taking place? What do you both agree to do to overcome potential obstacles? Schedule a follow up to evaluate progress and definitively reach closure on the issue at hand.
Adopt a mindset of inquiry.
Spend a little time to reflect on your attitude toward the situation and the person involved. What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mindset will predetermine your reaction and interpretations of the other person’s responses, so it pays to approach such a conversation with the right mindset—which in this context is one of inquiry. A good doctor diagnoses a situation before reaching for his prescription pad. This applies equally to a leader. Be open to hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. Even if the evidence is so clear that there is no reason to beat around the bush, we still owe it to the person to let them tell their story. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. The outcome of adopting this approach might surprise you.
Most of us were likely raised to believe that emotions need to be left at the door. We now know that this is an old-school approach that is no longer valid in today’s work environments. It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. The late Robert Plutchik, professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a Whell of Emotions to show that emotions follow a path. What starts as an annoyance, for example, can move to anger and, in extreme cases, escalate to rage. We can avoid this by being mindful of preserving the person’s dignity—and treating them with respect—even if we totally disagree with them.
Be comfortable with silence.
There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don’t rush to fill it with words. Just as the pause between musical notes helps us appreciate the music, so the periodic silence in the conversation allows us to hear what was said and lets the message sink in. A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better. For example, if you are an extrovert, you’re likely uncomfortable with silence, as you’re used to thinking while you’re speaking. This can be perceived as steamrolling or overbearing, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak. Stop talking and allow them their moment—it can lead to a better outcome.
Preserve the relationship.
A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to blow them up. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irreparable wall between you and the person.
Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you’ll be perceived as showing favoritism. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. People have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. We trust a leader who is consistent because we don’t have to second-guess where they stand on important issues such as culture, corporate values and acceptable behaviors.
Develop your conflict resolution skills.
Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots.
Choose the right place to have the conversation.
Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own turf, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Even simple body language, such as leaning forward toward the person rather than leaning back on your chair, can carry a subtle message of your positive intentions; i.e., “We’re in this together. Let’s problem solve so that we have a better environment.” Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other without the desk as a barrier. Don’t exclude the coffee shop.
Some people put off having the conversation because they don’t know how to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach. “John, I would like to talk with you about what happened at the meeting this morning when Bob asked about the missed deadline. Let’s grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning to chat.” Or: “Linda, I want to go over some of the issues with XYZ customer and some concerns that I have. Let’s meet tomorrow morning to problem-solve.”
Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach. You don’t want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the “chat.” Make sure your tone of voice signals discussion and not inquisition, exploration and not punishment.
How Do I Begin?
How do I begin the conversation? Here are a few conversation openers I’ve picked up over the years–and used many times!
- I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
- I’d like to talk about ____________ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.
- I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
- I need your help with something. Can we talk about it (soon)? If the person says, “Sure, let me get back to you,” follow up with him.
- I think we have different perceptions about _____________________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
- I’d like to talk about ___________________. I think we may have different ideas about how to _____________________.
- I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about ___________. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.
About Luis Soares Costa
From the very beginning, coaching has always been at the core of my passions.
For the past 38 years I have been an Executive and Team Coach working globally with CEOs and their C-Suite Executives, Business Owners and top talent in a significant number of the major global companies (including a significant number of Fortune 500), innovative companies operating in new ecosystems and dynamic family owned businesses.
During the past 28 years, I have also been an Executive and Team Coach and a “consultant to consultants” developing partners and top talent at major consultancies, Big4 Firms and Legal Firms
As an Executive and Team Coach, I partner with you and/or your teams in a “real play” thought-provoking and creative process which inspires you to “connect the dots” and maximize your personal and professional potential. The aim of the partnership is to bring about a sustained behavioral and performance transformation and profoundly shift the quality of your and your team’s working and personal life, whilst maximizing your potential and generating sustainable value.
You can contact me at coach@LuisSoaresCosta.com and visit my Website at www.LuisSoaresCosta.com