Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

Common questions

  1. How do I even start the conversation?
  2. Isn’t it best just to say nothing?
  3. Is there a set of words or a magic formula I could use?
  4. What if they get angry or upset?
  5. What if I let emotion get the better of me?
  6. What if I’m on the receiving end of a difficult conversation?
  7. Is there a right time to have such a conversation?
  8. What if I’m taken by surprise?

 

1. How do I even start the conversation?

  • Know what you want to say
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Practise your opening words

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2. Isn’t it best just to say nothing?

How much worse do you risk the situation becoming if you do nothing? Think of the consequences and risks of non-action.

If the difficult conversation is as a result of a performance issue in the workplace, then it’s a conversation worth having. Saying nothing could end up costing a lot.

Think about why you don’t want to handle this. Sometimes when we explore our reasons for putting something off, we get clues as to how to move forward.

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3. Is there a set of words or a magic formula I could use?

Although there is no ‘one fix for all’, there are certain words and phrases that could be useful and are worth considering. It is good practice to know clearly how you are going to begin the conversation and how you are going to end it.

The magic formula, if there is one, includes:

  • Preparation
  • Practice
  • Following the ten tips to making it easier

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4. What if they get angry or upset?

This is one of the issues that often stops us from starting the conversation. We are afraid of another person’s reaction and think we won’t be able to cope. And what if it’s you who gets angry or upset? Anticipating such reactions in advance and practising your response to them is core to dealing with this.

The more we are in rapport with someone, the more we will be able to cope with their emotion – and ours. The more we understand and are aware of our own emotions, the better able we are to handle them.

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5. What if I let emotion get the better of me?

Managing your own state is just as important as managing the other person’s. Emotion is stronger than reason, so if you want to stay focused on your outcome, you need to handle your emotions. Decide what state (mood) you want to be in first, and then focus on the other person and your outcome.

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6. What if I’m on the receiving end of a ‘difficult’ conversation?

This can be hard, particular if you have been taken by surprise or don’t know what it’s going to be about. The best advice is to

  • Gather as much information as you can
  • Assume the other person wants a win/win
  • Prepare your response (take time out if necessary)
  • Get curious: ask questions to clarify the situation, check the evidence
  • Take your time
  • Be solution-focused not blame– or problem-focused.

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7. Is there a right time to have such a conversation?

Probably not! If we wait for this mythical right time, it may never happen. What is more important is deciding in advance when and where to have such a conversation. For this, you need to take the other person into account as well as the topic of your conversation. Where and when would be best?

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8. What if I’m taken by surprise?

Occasionally, we might not be given any time at all to prepare for a difficult conversation, as the person concerned might hijack us in the corridor. What do you do then? The best advice is to delay the meeting, to give you time to prepare. Even five minutes can make a difference and anyone can wait five minutes.

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