Making those tricky chats yield results

BY Archana Law

We all struggle at times to be articulate in face-to-face interactions especially when the conversation is emotional, difficult or strategic. It’s hard to express yourself when you know the stakes or emotions are high.

Being good at these difficult discussions can enhance your credibility, boost your confidence, build an important relationship or even help you negotiate that promotion or pay rise!

The spectre of having a difficult conversation about work with a boss or colleague can cause sleepless nights and feelings of dread. In some cases, people would rather quit their job than have ‘the talk.’

A VitalSmarts online poll of 540 people found that half of them avoided the other party (in some cases, for more than two years) rather than broach a difficult discussion at work.

Other ‘head in the sand’ tactics showed that 37 percent of respondents considered quitting or changing jobs, 37 percent skirted around the topic when speaking to the other party and 5.9 percent even reported sick… to delay the discussion!

The most common scary conversations seem to be the ones on performance. But broken promises, unmet expectations and obnoxious behaviour are issues that are better addressed than ignored.

Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen define a difficult conversation as “anything you find hard to talk about.”

Communication is a foundational part of any relationship so it’s unrealistic to expect every discussion we have with clients, coworkers, family and friends to be successful. The main reason we have difficulty with such discussions is because our backgrounds, experiences, values and concerns are different.

Whenever you have a difficult conversation with someone, there are usually three conversations going on at the same time: the ‘what happened’ conversation, the ‘feelings’ conversation and the ‘identity’ conversation.

Communication experts say there are a number of stages to a difficult discussion, as well as specific skills and strategies to participate effectively in these hard discussions. People who are very successful at difficult discussions usually end up solving problems and maintaining relationships.

Here are some proven tips and ways that work.

PREPARE Reflect on how you typically speak and adjust your mindset. Be careful to maintain a positive tone and use appropriate verbiage. Using tentative language such as ‘I’m not sure you intended this …’ or ‘I’m not even sure you’re aware of this…’ is seen as a balanced blend of confidence and humility.

Reflect on the need for the discussion and desired outcome. Is this an internal or external conflict? Can you change anything through this discussion? Will it damage or strain your relationship with the other person?

Think about how you will engage in the discussion and gather all relevant information. Clearly convey the purpose of the discussion, choose a neutral location and ask a facilitator to be present if necessary. Review organisational policies and procedures that may apply to the situation.

CONDUCT At the ‘what happened’ stage, there are bound to be discrepancies between your perception of events and the other party’s recollections. Consider the alternative perspective rather than assume the other person is wrong and you are right. Remain calm and take a deep breath before responding. Review the facts objectively.

When there are strong feelings or underlying emotional currents in the discussion, be factual; and yet, be sensitive and considerate. Emphasise that the purpose of the discussion is to seek a solution rather than criticise the other person. Be a present, empathic listener.

Give the other party space to share his or her side of the story. Be open to hearing their feelings about the issue and share your own if needed. And set boundaries when discussing emotions. It’s easier to fall back on the agreement, if any, if you cross the line.

Discussions can also be difficult because the underlying issue threatens our identity in some way or the other. We have a view of who we are; and we react strongly when we believe our identity has been attacked. Don’t let the issue affect your self-image and be careful not to convey the same to the other person too.

Avoid criticising him or her; stay focussed on the issue instead.

CONCLUDE Map your discussion to the following points. Did you reach the planned goal or a solution to the problem? And did both of you leave with clear action items? Did you document key discussion points for future reference and schedule follow-up meetings if required?

Psychologist Jeffrey Kottler says that every person you fight with has many other people in his or her life with whom he or she gets along quite well. You can’t look at a person who seems difficult to you without also looking at yourself!