In a June episode of The Working Life, Carol Blymire and I discussed the art of the difficult conversation.
Avoiding difficult conversations is a common practice both in our professional lives and our personal lives. Telling an employee that their performance is not up to snuff is an unpleasant task for most of us. Confronting a friend about an unpleasant situation promises to be about as fun as a root canal. So when faced with an unpleasant or difficult conversation—many of us just avoid it, hoping that somehow the situation will just improve on its own. Unfortunately, this strategy rarely works—and ultimately weakens the relationship—whether it is a personal or professional relationship.
Conducting difficult conversations with grace and skill is a great asset in today’s world. Turning a potentially conflict-ridden conversation into a collaborative conversation requires preparation, empathy, focus and commitment. Here are the basic steps to engaging in a successful “difficult conversation.”
- Prepare: Spend time in advance getting clear about the purpose of the conversation. What outcomes are you seeking? What facts, opinions, feelings, questions, and/or requests do you have? Which of these do you want to share? It is essential that you create a positive goal for building a better relationship and for resolution of the issue that you are bringing forward.
- Lead with a positive intention: How a conversation begins foreshadows how it will end. Setting up the conversation well guarantees a better outcome. Open with a clear articulation of the purpose of the conversation and at least one goal you both share. Equally important is to share a positive intention for the other person and your desire to BUILD a stronger relationship with this person.
- Start with them: Before you launch into your perspective ask the other person to share how they see things. Most people begin these conversations defensive or fearful. Inviting them to speak early sends a message that they are going to be full partners in the conversation. In other words, make it clear you are speaking with them and not talking at them. Avoid interrupting or contradicting until the other person has finished speaking.
- Share your perspective: Once the other person has spoken, ask them if you might share your perspective. Then deliver a clear, thoughtful summation of what you are seeing, how you understand the situation and what you want. Speak with clarity, directness and succinctness. Avoid long anecdotes and rambling examples. (This is where your preparation will pay off in huge dividends.) Allow the other person to ask questions. When finished offering your perspective, ask them to summarize what they heard you say. This will ensure that your message was delivered.
- Maintain Focus & Problem Solve: Track the conversation and stay on topic. Picture yourself on the same side of the table with the other person or actually sit next to the other person. Think about the “problem” as an objective issue to be examined together. Articulate what you see as the other person’s perspectives, concerns or hopes Seek win-win solutions.
- Plan for next steps: As the conversation ends, explicitly recap any agreements you’ve made.
- Show Appreciation. Thank your conversation partner A little gratitude goes a long way.