Managing Difficult Conversations

You know that sinking feeling, your stomach is in a knot, you have to have a conversation and it’s going to be difficult.

Avoiding it makes it worse and leaves you feeling anxious even longer.

So, how do you handle these conversations with finesse?

How bad is it?
Put it in perspective.  Challenging conversations vary in degrees.  What might be seriously difficult for one person, won’t be troublesome for another.

Here are some scenarios to register your threshold – which of these would make you squirm?

First there’s the area of awkward conversations; telling someone they’ve got something in their teeth, they need deodorant or that their child has badly misbehaved.

Now, move up a notch to conversations that are harder.  Delivering the news that something isn’t going to happen on time… or at all. Maybe it’s explaining changes that weren’t made or explaining a mistake that was made.

Finally, some really difficult conversations, telling someone they’re losing their job, asking someone if they’ve done something illegal, telling someone that they are seriously ill.

How did you do?

Sometimes putting the subject into perspective is enough to get you moving.

If it’s an awkward conversation – don’t blow it out of proportion. These are best dealt with as politely as possible, and then move on.

If you have something harder, a subject in that second or third range of difficult conversation, here are some tips to help you think about your approach.

Catastrophizing is when you spin this out, in your imagination, to its worst possible conclusion.

That won’t help.

You are making your caveman brain pump your body full of adrenalin, preparing for fight or flight.

Your fight or flight mode isn’t a good start point for the person on the receiving end because they are completely unprepared.

You want to stop that growing vision of the worst case scenario so your adrenalin doesn’t flow.

You can do this by reversing your imaginative approach.

Think about the best case solution – imagine the other person will take the information on board calmly, they won’t be concerned, they’ll agree with your solution and trust you to deliver it.

Focus your mind on the outcome you want.  This stops the urge to be aggressive (fight) or hide it and pretend it didn’t happen (flight).  It also puts you in a much calmer state of mind to get the conversation started.

Own the subject
It makes it easier if you acknowledge to yourself that you are entitled to talk about this.  This situation is a concern and you are in a position of responsibility to put it right.

If you’re not sure if it is your job – ask the person you think might be handling it – my bet is they will be quick to hand you back the authority to deal with it.

Get it on the desk
So you’ve braced yourself to talk to someone, how do you get started?

There was an old notion of a feedback sandwich – say something nice, then slide the hard subject in, and finish on something nice.

That’s just rubbish.  If it is a real crisis, the person will be appalled you’ve waste 10 minutes building up to it, when you could have been making some decisions.

If it’s not a crisis, they will still sense something is coming.  People have good instincts, they know you are headed somewhere and they’ll feel anxious waiting for you to spring it on them.

Get the problem on the desk quickly; tell them what’s bothering you and what you need to talk about.

A simple guide
If you’d like a framework for opening that can of worms, try this suggestion from Susan Scott’s book called Fierce Conversations:

The issue is: (be as concise as possible)
It is significant because:
My ideal outcome is:
Relevant background information:
What I have done up to this point:
What I’d like your help in:

Avoid surprises
No one likes to be caught off guard and if they feel you’ve intentionally kept them in the dark it will be even harder to resolve.

If you can, start planting seeds when you think something could go wrong.

Case in point, we all know staff performance issues should be an ongoing discussion, not saved up for an appraisal.

That holds true for any other problem that you anticipate could potentially blow up.

If there are signals that things aren’t going well, share them with the people that it will impact.  It makes dealing with it much easier if it does occur.  If it doesn’t and just goes away, you look like a hero.

Adult to Adult
Keep it professional.  It’s easy to slip into a child role when you have to tell someone senior about a problem.  You become the kid terrified of being reprimanded or the belligerent teenager trying to bluster through – neither are a good approach and they won’t build your reputation.

Equally, don’t become the parent.  It isn’t your job to protect them from reality or take away their responsibility in the situation.

Keep it adult to adult, professional to professional.

Your reputation
How you handle difficult conversations does a lot to build (or diminish) your reputation.  Doing great work is remembered.  Really difficult problems, conversations or situations are remembered even longer.

What you’ll be respected for is dealing with it quickly, keeping people informed, helping them understand the options and what you are recommending.

If you can come through a difficult discussion with that intact, your stature in the company will grow and you can be seriously proud of yourself as a result.

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