Most of us prefer to dodge difficult conversations. We’re not very eye-of-the-tiger about it. That is, we don’t feel confident about handling a conversation that could potentially be uncomfortable – for all involved. Instead, lots of us throw in the towel and walk away. It’s called avoiding the situation.
Then, of course, there are some people who are prepared to roll with the punches. They manage difficult conversations constructively – with skill, care and consideration. Last, but not least, there’s the plucky people. The fearless among us who jump in, without a second’s thought about the consequences.
The next time you find yourself face-to-face with a challenging conversation, refer to this knock-out approach:
- Early and often is best – always make a point of having a difficult conversation, or giving feedback, in the moment or as soon as possible. Opt for “no surprises”, do not wait for the annual performance review.
- Positive intent – ensure your feedback comes from a positive intent. Test your intentions until you are certain they are positive and not driven by an unspoken, ulterior motive.
- Adapt your communication style – observe body cues, intonation and more; notice what is going well or awry, and adapt accordingly.
- Listen with curiosity – ask open-ended questions, encourage others to share their view (even contrary ones), and listen carefully to responses.
By promoting openness when conversations are challenging, it facilitates capacity for reflection, self-awareness, and accountability rather than defensiveness and finger pointing.
I recently coached a senior executive who was responsible for delivering a large project, leading a diverse group of people across organisational and geographical boundaries to deliver efficiencies.
I helped my client prepare for a difficult conversation he was going to have with a colleague, also a senior executive, who was at risk of not delivering. I asked him the following questions.
Why are you having this conversation?
- The team is excelling at some aspects, but there is an ‘issue’ and room for improvement.
- If it’s not addressed, it could lead to bigger issues, and I might have to raise it with the board.
What are you trying to achieve?
- To deliver the project on time, within budget.
- To assure myself that the other executives involved in delivering this project understand its importance and are capable of achieving what’s required of them in their individual roles.
Why is it important that YOU (and not someone else) have this conversation?
- It is fair to inform my colleague early, rather than simply rely on the formal project management systems and processes.
- We have a great, longstanding relationship. If it was the other way around, I would expect and respect him if he came to me as soon as possible.
What is your positive intention?
- To make sure the job gets done, the team is supported and ‘issues’ are prevented or dealt with early.
- I’d also like to preserve the strong relationship I have with my colleague.
With all of this clarified, I then helped my client to script the conversation he was going to have. He subsequently had the conversation and he was actually thanked by his colleague for raising the issues and was assured that they were going to be addressed appropriately.
If you feel confronted with a similar situation, you can use the questions above to help clarify your intentions and motivation for having the conversation. From there, it’s important to work out a strategy that has integrity – and will work for you. Bear in mind, everyone has a communication styles and preferences – see The secret of effective communication.
How do you manage difficult conversations or feedback?
Do you have any additional tips or suggestions?
Feel free to share and comment below, or reach out to me directly, if you need assistance.