Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

Ten tips for making it easier

Be proactive

Proactive people ‘work on the things they can do something about’.

Stephen Covey Habit 1 from Seven habits of highly effective people
  1. Think positively: imagine that the other party has a positive intent, no matter what the topic. Imagine a win/win outcome; this will make the conversation go easier.
  2. Know your goal or your core message: why do you need this conversation, what do you hope to achieve and what would be an ideal outcome?
  3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: how might they react to this conversation? What might be their concerns? Acknowledge their emotions. Don’t assume they see your point of view.
  4. Practise your words, ensuring you will be able to state the issues clearly and be prepared for any response.
  5. Be in control: stay ‘on message’ and keep emotions at bay. If you allow yourself to get into an argument, then your rational brain has switched off. Remind yourself of your goal and stay objective. Don’t take things personally.
  6. Be specific: if appropriate, focus on the behaviour you want changed rather than the person. If behaviour isn’t the topic of conversation, then be specific about facts and outcomes.
  7. Build rapport – be empathetic. Refer to the section on rapport for more on this.
  8. Listen: if appropriate, listen first to what they have to say, before you put your point of view. If you have to speak first, do so and then ask for their opinion – and listen without interruption. Refer to the section on rapport for more on this.
  9. Check understanding: the danger is when the person on the receiving end of a difficult conversation only hears bits of what you say and then distorts the words and the meaning afterwards. It is helpful either to summarise what has been said or agreed or, better still, ask them what they have understood. Depending on the issue at stake, it might even be worth having an independent witness present to affirm what was said.
  10. Take action: explore together how to improve matters or explain what is to happen next. Stay solution-focused rather than problem-focused. Always think: ‘what do we want to have happen?’
Beware...

...of distortion

A friend of mine told a team member that ‘we would all have to pull our weight’ and that she wasn’t doing so. Later she was heard telling people that she had been told she wasn’t valued.

Communication is never what is sent, only what is received.