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.

How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

In the previous post I looked at the skills you need in order to be able to have effective difficult conversations. Now I want to take you through the steps you can follow when preparing to have that difficult conversation.

When you know that you must have a difficult conversion – whether you’re on the receiving end or you’re the person who is arranging the conversation – there are some things you can do to make it easier.

  • Know Your Purpose – Why do you want to have this difficult conversation to start with? What are you hoping will result from it? Be sure to know your goals and objectives in advance of even mentioning the talk to the other person or people involved.
  • Don’t Make Assumptions – Whether you’re on the receiving end or not, do not make assumptions about how the other person is going to react. It’s okay to go over different scenarios in your head so that you know how you might deal with them effectively, but do not assume that you’re correct about them. You have no idea what their real thoughts or intentions are until they share them.
  • Know Yourself – If you know that you’re an emotional person, do things to help prepare yourself for the discussion such as avoiding caffeine, taking anti-anxiety medications if you normally use it, meditating, or taking a run or walk in advance of the meeting.
  • Is Your Opponent / Partner Aware There Is a Problem? – Before approaching the person, ask yourself if they are aware that there is a problem. Often something that seems obvious to us is not even on the radar for the other person. If they’re going to be blindsided, acknowledge that your lack of communication is the cause.
  • What Are Your Fears? – Before going into this difficult conversation, what do you fear about the potential discussion and its outcome? Often these fears are unfounded, but naming the fears can help you figure out how you’ll talk to the person.
  • What Part Is Your Responsibility? – If you can determine from your perspective what your responsibility is in the situation, you need to address that up front when you enter the discussion. That will calm their fears and make them realize right away that this is not a blame game discussion.
  • Watch Videos – This is a great video from Ted Talks headlining Celeste Headlee, a writer and radio host, where she talks about ten ways to have better conversations. This can work for many types of difficult conversations.
  • Seek Advice – If you’re unsure, you can also seek out advice from someone like a counselor or a mediator. Mediators’ sole focus is on helping people get through difficult conversations and negotiations. Find one that is well versed in the area you need help with.
  • Practice – One of the biggest things you can do to get better at having difficult conversations is to practice. Keep having the conversations, acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, so that you can do better each time.

Preparing for a difficult conversation is just as important as having the conversation. If you are ready and have taught yourself about communication, conflict resolution, and have a good understanding of human nature and how to get to solutions, you’ll end up doing great.

Skills You Need to Have a Difficult Conversation

Having recently started a new role I have been having lots of conversations as I get to know the business and the challenges that individuals face. As with any business, change is a constant and one of the things that people tell me they find most challenging is some of the potentially difficult conversations that they find themselves needing to have.

That set me reflecting on the skills we need to have in order to be able to deal with those difficult conversations and how to ensure they go well. Over the next few posts I want to explore that in a little more detail and in this first post in the serious I will look at the skills we need.

Throughout life, there come times where we must have difficult conversations with others. No one really wants to, because most people do not like confrontation. And while difficult conversations are never easy, if you avoid them there are still consequences which can often be much worse than just having the conversation to start with.

Think of it this way: by avoiding difficult conversations, you are deciding to ignore the solution and allow the problem to continue. When you look at it like that, it becomes clearer that you must have difficult conversations so that you can find solutions.

Having difficult conversations can be easier if you develop certain skills that make you better at communication and problem solving.

Skills You Need to Have a Difficult Conversation

Developing skills that you need to succeed with difficult conversations is possible for everyone. You need to know who you are, what your goals are, and how to reach them. When you know what you need and take the steps to achieve your goals, you will be successful.

  • Information Gathering – The first thing to do is gather the right type of information to support your goals. For example, if this is a discussion at work so you can get a raise, you want to show proof that you deserve the raise. If this is about a problem you’re having with your spouse, you want to remember situations that occurred due to this issue. Not to use against them, but to learn what you can do differently.
  • Be Assertive – To have difficult conversations, assertiveness is necessary so that you can go forth with it without procrastination. It’s hard to have tough talks, but once they’re over it’s usually not as bad as you thought it would be. Most of the time our fears aren’t founded, and when they are, you can use other skills to mitigate problems.
  • Be Empathetic – Right now you may think that the problem is really the other person’s issue. But if you can look at things from their side, and even argue their side for them in order to show them you do get it, that will go far in helping bring them closer to understanding your view too.
  • Control Your Emotions – Depending on the topic, it can be very hard to control your emotions, but you must if you want to reach a solution. Even if you cry, or feel angry, or shake, you can still control what you say and do. For example, even if you’re angry, don’t yell accusations or start playing the blame game.
  • Be Willing to Negotiate – Most of the time the answer is in between what they want and what you want. If you can negotiate, you’ll both come out feeling like winners because you solved the problem.
  • Understand Verbal and Non-Verbal Language – When we communicate, we transmit both verbal and non-verbal cues. Sometimes these can be interpreted wrongly, especially if you were raised differently or have different cultures. If you’re in doubt, ask. Never assume intention.
  • Listen – Listening involves more than hearing. It involves hearing and understanding. If you want to really understand someone, you need to learn how to listen actively.
  • Learn Conflict Negotiation – Even if you don’t often have difficult conversations in your life, learning conflict negotiation skills can go very far in helping prepare you for general communication throughout your life. Harvard Business Review has books and guides about this very topic.

When you grow these skills, it will not only improve your ability to have successful difficult conversations but it will also improve your relationships in every aspect of your life. In my next post I will look at how you can prepare for the next difficult conversation you have to have.