Difficult conversations are an integral part of many challenging, fast-paced and demanding workplaces. The complexity and discomfort associated with difficult conversations run the gamut — firing someone you like, delivering tough performance reviews, confronting disrespectful or unprofessional behavior, and confronting a colleague about their offensive body odor. The bottom line is there are many subjects that we find difficult to talk about in workplaces. How we handle them can make the difference between a great outcome or having a miserable (and unresolved) problem.
While handling difficult conversations can be challenging, there are strategies that can improve the outcome:
- Be prepared. Preparing for a difficult conversation is always a good idea. Can you imagine a lawyer going into trial unprepared or a politician who hasn’t prepared talking points for a press conference? Take the time to prepare a written “cheat sheet” — talking points that will help you keep focused. This is particularly helpful if you anticipate a highly emotional response.
- Identify your understanding of the problem. Clarify the issue for yourself and be prepared to address this in the conversation. Your idea of what the issue is and the person’s reality may be very different.
An objective of a first discussion, particularly about a complex or systemic problem, may be simply to come to an understanding of what the problem or issue really is. Using the “what the video camera would have captured” approach — versus emotional reactivity or hearsay comments — can be helpful.
- Establish your intention. Define where you want to end up as a result of this conversation. What is at stake? What do you want for yourself, the person, your relationship and others the situation is affecting?
- Anticipate discomfort. Have a plan for self-soothing as well as a de-escalation strategy if things get emotional.
- For very difficult situations, get help. Find a colleague, mentor or outside resource to review, discuss and help you prepare for the discussion. An impartial third-party perspective may provide valuable insight and help you clarify and prepare. Role-play the anticipated conversation and get feedback — including about how your tone and body language are coming across.
Anticipating how the person may respond in this practice session (ask your partner to mimic how the person might act) may give you new approaches and coping ideas.
While in the difficult conversation:
- Describe how the situation has affected you on an emotional level. Genuinely inquire about how the other person is feeling.
- Demonstrate your concern for what you imagine it’s like to be in his or her shoes. Try to acknowledge and understand his or her position. This isn’t necessarily agreement; it’s understanding perceptions.
- Use curiosity to help manage your anxiety and foster an open dialogue. Asking open-ended questions can help here: “What has this been like for you?” Authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Harvard Negotiation Project) write about the importance of shifting from a telling conversation to a learning conversation in their book “Difficult Conversations.” In other words, use inquiry versus blame.
- Identify how you have contributed to the situation.
- Get clarity and agreement about what changes must take place. While lessons of the past are important, what does the future solution look like?
Indicate what you can or are willing to change. Make clear what you want and need. Clarify agreements or commitments and define consequences for future behavior — both good and bad. These are key steps often missed by many managers.
- Finally, document! It is important to provide a written record of issues and agreements, particularly for highly sensitive, personal or ongoing issues.
Managing in today’s dynamic workplace requires a broad base of leadership, communication and people skills. The ability to manage difficult conversations effectively is one of the many challenges required for successful leadership.
Done well, with planning and preparation, the end result can be very positive — on people, relationships and performance.
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