How to have that difficult conversation you keep putting off

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I got an email from the Operations Manager in one of my clients businesses this week. Without giving you all the details he was pretty pissed with the behavior of one of his fellow managers. As I read the words I could feel the anger and frustration in his voice. Now, I know both the combatants in this situation, so can say with some degree of confidence that this is a clash of styles AND priorities. It made me recall many times in my own corporate career where I had been in the same position. These situations seemed to inevitably end up in angry and heated argument.

Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping like a difficult conversation and, in business, there is no shortage of situations that demand them. For example, disgruntled customers, unhappy suppliers, under-performing employees or inter-departmental disputes. These conversations pull us away from our grounding. The potential for conflict unsettles us and creates a felt experience of anxiety, even panic.

In my role as a coach, I still have difficult conversations and I do my clients a huge disservice if I don’t ask the tough questions (you know the type of question I mean. The ones that make you feel uncomfortable just thinking about saying them). There are a couple of ideas I have found helpful in these situations that I want to share with you

Seek first to understand and then to be understood.

This is one of Steven Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people. This sentence changed the way I communicated forever. Instead of trying to win my point or get my argument across, my primary goal in any conversation is simply to understand how and why the other person see’s things differently to me. Even if I think someone is wrong I recognize that in their mind they are right. There is no point in trying to persuade them without first seeing the positive intention behind their position.

Questions are the answer

If you want to get really good at handling conversations then master two skills; asking great questions and listening. Our opinions are based on the story we grew up with and our past experiences. It is only when we can see things differently for ourselves that these beliefs and values can shift. A permanent shift in the way someone sees a situation is rarely the result of persuasion by others. It comes instead from a personal insight that changes how they see a situation. By asking searching questions, and holding people in a space where they can answer them (have you noticed that people rarely directly answer most questions they are asked?), you give them the best opportunity for these powerful insights.

Deal in Facts and Feelings; but distinguish the two.

In the heat of a difficult conversation emotions will often run high. In the world of business we are rarely confronted with black and white issues. Instead we deal in degrees of uncertainty. Business isn’t black and white. It is always grey.

You cannot ignore your intuitive and sensory feelings when making decisions in the grey. Neither can you ignore those of others. Instead it is valuable to explore where these hunches or feelings are coming from

What is important is to be

  • clear and honest about the basis of your views
  • willing to separate facts from feelings.

Have the conversation

Finally, don’t avoid the conversation. Even worse don’t try to conduct it over email. Arrange the time to have the conversation and be clear about the positive outcome that you want, for both parties.

If you go into a conversation with a combative ‘me’ versus ‘you’ attitude then you are setting up for conflict and disagreement. It’s the result you will get. If you are going into any interaction with another human being with a goal of upsetting them, the problem is with you. Instead focus on the mutual outcome that you both want (at some level there will always be a mutual outcome you are both striving for). Always attack the problem and never the person.

So come on. What are you waiting for? Go and have that difficult conversation.