How to have difficult conversations successfully
Whether it’s with our colleagues, the boss or the neighbour next door we all need to have conversations that can cause us difficulty. Frequently we fear our own reactions – how are we going to control what we say and do when we open up the discussion?
To help you, let’s consider some principles.
Principle 1: Make observations not judgements.
We frequently observe someone’s behaviour and make a judgement about it. For example, “the boss made an angry comment so she must not be happy with my work”. “The other department got the report first so my department is not appreciated”. These situations can be observed rather than judged. For example, “the boss raised her voice and my department received the report after the other two departments”. When judgements are made they are often just speculation and only succeed in adding feelings of negativity to the situation.
Principle 2: Explore behaviour rather than confront it.
The best place to start with a difficult conversation is to find out from the other person why they did what you observed (not judged). In other words, we are aiming to explore the facts and motivation behind the behaviour rather than confront the person. When we ask someone rather than tell them they tend to give a rational answer rather than a reactive retort. It’s then crucially important that we do not react to the reply we receive. Say for example, you observe that a colleague made only one comment at a morning meeting and you ask them why they had such little input. If they reply that your meetings are boring and you then set about defending yourself you have choked off a potentially worthwhile conversation. Difficult as it may seem, by staying in ‘exploration mode’ you will understand their problem better and potentially achieve a better outcome.
Principle 3: Get used to checking things out
If you observe behaviour you should feel comfortable about just checking it out. If you get into the habit of checking things out more often problems don’t get a chance to build and people will feel more comfortable talking about things.
Principle 4: The lower the emotion the better people can ‘hear’.
When someone is high on the conflict escalation scale (10 very angry: 1 very calm) it’s often best to let matters cool off. Bringing up issues in the heat of battle may feel like an ideal time to get it off your chest but you know as soon as you say it that sometimes it makes matters worse. The lower a person is on the scale the more receptive they will be to you exploring any problem you have with them.
Principle 5: Focus on the behaviour rather than on the issues
If you open a ‘difficult’ conversation both parties tend to be more comfortable talking about practical subjects rather than any difficult behaviour. You might explore why someone got angry at a meeting and then find yourself spending a half-hour talking about issues discussed at the meeting. In effect the focus has moved away from discussing the person’s behaviour. If all we discuss are work issues and avoid talking about the person’s behaviour the difficult behaviour will probably continue. It’s okay to talk about work issues but we must remember to bring the discussion back to the main issue – the person’s behaviour.
Relax and make sure difficult conversations are just that – conversations rather than confrontations.