Difficult Conversations – Achieving A Positive Outcome

In the two previous posts I have looked at the skills needed to be able to have difficult conversations and what to do to prepare for them. Now let’s look at how we achieve a positive outcome, preferably for all concerned.

There are some useful steps you can follow to ensure a successful outcome of almost any type of difficult conversation. Naturally, if you have to fire someone, or lay someone off, or tell someone their loved one died, this is not going to be the same as other types of conversations that have solutions. But, you can still use these lessons in all walks of life.

Be Curious

Instead of approaching a problem with, “This is how I see it, and now you must do this”, approach it with the idea that you want to know what the other person thinks and feels before you share your side. If they’re completely unaware of the problem, then you may have to go first, but let them know in the process that you want to know their thoughts and feelings and ideas without judgment. Here are some examples:

“Sue, we really need to talk about that issue with customer service. I have a feeling we see things very differently, and I really want your feedback on this issue.”

“Jack, we need to talk about our budget and how it may be affecting us both. I have a feeling that we see things very differently and I hope that you’ll let me know how you really feel about this topic tonight after we get the kids to bed.”

Acknowledge the Other Side

When the person you’re having the difficult conversation with tells you their thoughts and feelings, don’t just jump in right away with yours. Instead, mirror theirs back to them so that you can make sure that you really do understand them. Only move on to your side when you have received an acknowledgment that you are understanding them completely.

“What I heard you say is that you feel exhausted after work trying to get dinner on the table without help.”

“What I heard you say is that when you get home you need some time to decompress after work before you spend time with me and the kids.”

“What I heard you say is that the filing system we use is confusing and you have ideas to make it better and more effective.”

Clarify the Issues

The purpose of clarifying the issue at hand is to focus the topic on that one issue. Approaching too many issues at once can be hard to grasp and overwhelm any conversation. Even in serious situations such as infidelity, the issue is often not the infidelity but the problem in the marriage.

Being late for work may seem like the main issue as the boss. But, perhaps there is a reason for the tardiness, such as sitting around in the morning with nothing to do? If so, the issue here is really that there is nothing to do. If there was something to do, the employee won’t take time so casually.

On the other hand, a personal issue might be making the employee late. Then you must clarify if the issue is being late or if the issue is the impossibility of getting there on time due to dropping kids off at school on time and the traffic being horrible.

Often an issue can be clarified by figuring out what the deliverables are or what the solution is. In the case of employees being tardy due to having to drop off their kids in the morning, maybe you can implement flex time. There is almost always a solution.

Focus on Problem Solving

Instead of focusing on the problem and placing blame, focus on what you want the solution to look like. In doing so, accept that your solution might not be the best one. Perhaps the other person has a better idea that will work rather than your idea. When the focus is placed on solutions, the problems usually disappear faster.

The reason it’s faster is because you stop complaining about things that cannot change and won’t change. You can’t go back and not be late. You can’t unmake a mistake. But you can move forward and try to avoid making the same mistake again if it’s possible.

For example, if you have an employee who is always late, why are they late? Do they just not care about your rule? Usually, that is not the case. Find out why, then figure out what you can do. If there is no way around the fact that you must have someone answering phones on time each day, you may need to find someone else to answer the phones.

While sometimes the solution seems harsh, you have to determine what you want the solution to be, what they would like the solution to be, and how you can meet in the middle if it’s possible at all.

Facing difficult discussions is really all about learning problem-solving techniques. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the receiving end or you’re the one calling the meeting. You can approach it thinking about solutions to problems rather than just the problems. Don’t look at how difficult something is; look at it as a problem that can be solved, and you will succeed.