Six Tips for Managing Difficult Conversations

Posted on September 10, 2013

difficult conversationsGetting started is the hardest part.  It’s getting past that awkward pause before you begin or worse still, explaining why you want to talk. Part of the challenge is that often by asking for the conversation, you end up having the conversation before you’re really ready. That’s something to avoid. No good comes from having the conversation when you’re not prepared. Of course, you could always hijack the other person into a discussion they didn’t anticipate. If that seems unfair, it’s because it is. You are also likely to end up in a defensive and angry discussion when resolving, revealing or relieving the issue  should be your first priority.

Some phrases to consider:

  • I’d like to talk to you about – but first I’d like your point of view.
  • I need your help with something. Can we talk about it soon?
  • I have something to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I think we have different perceptions about __ and I’d like to hear your thinking on it.

Pick your location wisely. Where a difficult conversation happens is often as important as how the conversation happens. It will hardly make the process easier for you if the setting is full of distractions. So start by ensuring that you are prepared to speak and that the setting is conducive to clear communication. In an office scenario I ask people out for coffee to avoid any possibility of being overheard. Being the centre of office gossip is only interesting on TV. I’ve sent someone away from their desk because their boss was having a discussion about them within their hearing. I then told the person having the discussion that others, including the subject of their discussion, could hear them and could they keep it down or move. I don’t think much of private discussions held in public.

There are always two people in a discussion. Remember that any discussion is a two-way activity. Although what you have to say may be weighing on your mind, you won’t know what is on the mind of the other person unless you give them room to speak.  Open the floor; ask them what they think about what was said and if they can think of a way for you both to resolve the issue. You may have a great idea, but they may have a better one.

Don’t spend too much time in a negative discussion. Give yourself time to talk but don’t give yourself too much time. What can be accomplished in 30 minutes can be undone in 60. Set another time to meet if you can’t get it all out.  This will give you a chance to cool down, consider the discussion and contemplate new solutions based on what you learned.

Get clarity and acknowledge emotions. One of the most effective ways of breaking down the negative rhetoric that comes from difficult conversations is repeating back to the person what you think you heard them say. A few years back, a colleague of mine was quite angry.  An important document had gotten mixed up with less important pieces and subsequently redirected to our correspondence unit. I answered the phone and was met with yelling. She was shouting at me about how important the document was and how time sensitive and how much trouble it had caused when it went missing, and then repeating.  In the middle of the second go around I said, “I know it was important and urgent, that’s why I sent it to you right away. Are you angry at me because a paper clip from another document in the envelope snagged it and so you mistakenly sent it to correspondence?”

There was a pause as she considered, then a very quiet, ‘“Yes.”

“Would you like me to staple documents in the future?” I asked. Again a pause, then a very calm “yes” followed.  The conversation ended shortly after that. Given our respective positions, the conversation made no sense, being angry, even less, but sometimes anxiety gets the best of you and before you know it, you’re having a difficult conversation.

If you’re thinking that I am naturally a calm person, you would be wrong. The only reason I wasn’t yelling back was because I have interpersonal communications training. What the exchange taught me was that the tactics work.  All my yelling would have done was escalate things and waste time in a pointless finger pointing activity. By keeping my tone even and paraphrasing what I heard, the discussion slowed and stopped.

There is power in being wrong. Perhaps one of the most difficult things about difficult conversations is acknowledging when you are wrong. We all take pride in our opinions and I think most people strive to do the right thing. So when you find yourself in a situation where you are wrong, it can be very challenging to acknowledge and to respond appropriately. The thing is, when you acknowledge you are wrong it can be such a powerful action, particularly as a leader. When you acknowledge you are wrong, it tells people who report to you that they can own up to mistakes too.  It tells colleagues that they can trust you to be fair and it tells bosses that if you don’t back down from an issue, it isn’t because of pride.

On a final note, don’t forget your body is in the conversation with you.  Make sure you are not sending one message with your body and another with your mouth – no arms folded across your chest.

Have you ever had to have a difficult conversation?  How did you handle it? There are many, many tips for managing difficult conversations, what are some of your best practices for dealing with tough discussions?