In a recent coaching session, my client said she was dreading having a difficult conversation. She needed to sit down with a colleague, whom she regards as a friend, and confront her about a series of things that have happened on the project they are working on. We affirmed that recognizing the need for the conversation is an important first step in this process. We also decided to change our language and, instead of calling this a difficult conversation, we referred to it as an important conversation.
“I’ve been putting this off for a few weeks, and now it is just getting worse,” she said.
Most leaders and managers would say that having tough conversations is part of their job. And most would also say they avoid having these conversations. They put it off, and feelings begin to fester, emotions become pent-up, frustration builds, and a blow-up may occur. Conversely, with no preparation, they may sit down to hash things out and end up not hearing each other – which, in the end, becomes a missed opportunity for a creative solution.
I asked my client to consider what was at risk if she continued to avoid having the conversation. She was already feeling increased tension, fatigue, and worry, which are common when we don’t step up. (Low morale, decreased productivity, and decline in outcomes are also common.) She also had noticed that conversations felt strained when the two of them were discussing things at work.
“I need to brace myself because I’m worried about her reaction when I talk to her. Bringing this up may just make things worse,” she said.
My client was focused on the other person’s potential reaction, wondering what she would say, how she would react. A fair amount of time and energy had already been spent worrying if her colleague would be angry, emotional, or storm out of the room. Focusing on the other person is natural.
However, to be successful at navigating important conversations, the work must begin within.
Preparing for the Conversation
Gather the facts. Concerns build up and go awry when we don’t know all the facts. Objectively gathering and reviewing the facts can help us make sure we don’t end up accusing or blaming others for something that wasn’t really true.
Own your emotions and your part in the conflict. It is important to identify your own emotions. If you are angry and offended, it is important to spend time reflecting on what triggered those feelings. Take a careful look at your part in the situation. In what ways did you contribute? (I.e., I let this go on too long, I didn’t speak up sooner, I wasn’t clear in the beginning, I could have checked in before now, etc.)
Consider your desired outcome. What do you want to accomplish? It could be to open dialogue or see the other person’s perspective, or to help the other person understand that their actions created disappointment, anger, mistrust. The desire could be to offer feedback that will help you work together. Thoughtful consideration about the best possible outcome helps in understanding what the specific needs are and how to frame those needs during the conversation.
The majority of the work in any difficult conversation is work you do on yourself. If you have done your own work ahead of time, you will be more present and open to creative solutions. Preparing ahead allows you to be more objective, clear about the facts, invite input, listen reflectively, hear the other person out, make a clear request as to how to resolve the issue, and be ready to remain curious about the outcome.
Navigating the Conversation
Start with a collaborative invitation.
- There is something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work better together.
- I’d like to talk about ________ with you, but first I’d like to hear your point of view.
- I would like your perception about what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
- I think we have different perceptions about _________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
Ask for the other person’s perspective (and truly listen). Be more curious than critical, and make the most generous assumptions possible about the other person’s part in the conflict. Listen to what they are saying and what they are NOT saying. Reflect back what you are hearing, to assure that you are clear and that they feel heard. Suspend the right to be offended or judgmental and the need to prove that you are right. Each of those essentially creates defensiveness and cuts off the conversation.
Stay in the dialogue. Notice if you are in creative response (curious, present, respectful, connected) during the conversation, as opposed to becoming reactive (shutting down, becoming passive, defensive, aggressive, critical, demanding). The only thing you really have control over is your own response (or reaction), so self-regulation, emotional agility, listening for total meaning (hearing what is said and not said) are all going to be essential. Owning your own part of this situation will go a long way in creating a space for the other person to look at their part.
Ask for what you want. Being clear about the resolution you want is imperative; however, asking the other person first can open up the collaborative process. When asking, remember to frame it in the positive (ask for what you want, not what you don’t want).
Show gratitude. Acknowledge the other person and offer your gratitude for their willingness and openness to engage with you.
My client was willing to do her own work first. She utilized this process of preparing for the conversation, had a much more successful discussion, and a significantly more positive outcome.
Having these conversations requires committed action, conversational skills, bravery, and authenticity. Handled well, these conversations build trust, improve relationships, and enable others to do the same.