How to Have A Difficult Conversation

How to Have A Difficult Conversation

Whenever two or more people occupy the same space, there is potential for conflict. Conflict occurs when one person does not receive the desired or expected behavior or response from another person. Conflict can either be direct (e.g., disagreement over the sales compensation plan) or in-direct (e.g., employee leaving work early every day). While minor conflict can be addressed easily and quickly, major conflict generally requires having a difficult conversation. When difficult conversations are avoided, behaviors or conditions go forward unaltered and unchecked.

Why do leaders avoid having difficult conversations? Avoidance is caused by fear. Fear is provoked by emotion, not reason. Leaders should embrace fear. Fear tells them what to do and when to do it. Leaders should use fear as a reason to take action, not an excuse to avoid difficult conversations. In the absence of fear, leaders are doing what is comfortable. When leaders fail to act, the consequences are always real even if not felt or seen in the moment. The lesson is, do not wait, take action. Below are ten tactics that leaders should use when having difficult conversations.

  • Actively Listen – Create empathy by listening to the other person’s point-of-view without an emotional filter.
  • Ask Questions – Gather objective data by engaging in a conversation versus giving a lecture.
  • Be Direct – Communicate specific boundaries and expectations for desired behaviors and outcomes.
  • Body Language – Ensure what you say is reinforced by how you carry yourself.
  • Eliminate Emotion – Focus on facts, not emotions, to gain clarity.
  • Explore Alternatives – Compromise where possible by giving up something to retain a different or partial gain.
  • Minimize Defensiveness – Reinforce positive behaviors and results to open the other person to feedback.
  • Repeat Back – Periodically paraphrase the conversation and assign meaning to it as you go.
  • Review Results – Focus on performance, not the person.
  • Separate Issues – Identify specific issues and view the other person’s position(s) in that context.

For leaders, directness and sensitivity are the two key components of having difficult conversations. Directness without sensitivity results in a message that may not be heard since the other person will be protecting themselves with defensiveness and/or resentment. Sensitivity without directness results in a message that will be heard, but not completely understood. The middle ground for achieving both objectives is delivering a clear and direct message with an awareness and empathy of how it makes the other person feel and how it affects the person’s self-image.

All contents copyright © 2015, Josh Lowry. All rights reserved.


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