Let’s face it, most of us dread having that difficult conversation. Whether it be delivering bad news to a co-worker, discussing a delicate topic with a friend, talking to your boss about a work issue that needs to change or other challenging topics, these conversations are, well, difficult.
Just thinking about these conversations can cause excess worry, apprehension and problems sleeping, which can also cause you to lose your focus from other important work responsibilities. Fortunately, there are tools to effectively manage difficult conversations and achieve the best results.
“Difficult conversations do not just involve feelings,
they are at their very core about feelings.”
- Douglas Stone
When having a difficult conversation, it’s always best to begin with a positive intent. This demonstrates your belief that the other person is not intentionally doing something wrong or trying to create problems. Rather, you’re giving him/her the benefit of the doubt and avoiding making negative assumptions or statements. You’re focus is the future, not the past.
One aspect about difficult conversations is our goals can change, therefore, it’s important you plan what you want ahead of time. If you don’t have the luxury of planning ahead, you must learn to step back and ask yourself, “What do I really want from this conversation?” In the heat of the moment, our goals can change quickly from, “I’m trying to present/argue a point,” to, “I’m trying to save face, because now I’m embarrassed,” to, “Now I need to win at all costs.” Stepping back and asking what you want can take practice. By taking the time to prepare to discuss what you want and why you want it, you’ll not only come across more confident and even tempered, the person you are conversing with will have a much clearer understanding of your needs.
Strive to have a face-to-face conversation rather than emailing or talking by phone. When having a personal meeting you’ll eliminate any misunderstanding you may receive by email, text or phone, for example. Face-to-face meetings are the ideal option, because you can receive feedback through body language including a smile. These meetings also make it easier to interpret a person’s feelings, which is critical when having a difficult conversation.
Douglas Stone, author of the bestseller, Difficult Conversations says people spend too much time on pointing fingers on who's to blame, which distracts from the crux of the conversation. Stone says when navigating a difficult conversation, we should “explore why things went wrong, what kept us from seeing them coming and how we can correct them going forward.” This approach focuses on the issue and not the placing blame on anyone.
Our bodies, especially our faces, do a lot of talking for us. When you’re having a conversation, it’s important you pay attention to what your body is saying and ensure it’s syncing with your words. When speaking with others, for example, lean forward slightly to indicate you’re listening and maintain good posture. Nod your head to show you understand or agree. Be mindful of negative body language such as crossing your arms when speaking, which can communicate disinterest or conflict or rolling your eyes, even if you don’t believe what you are hearing. Communication experts suggest that we should speak in a way that people will perceive as trustworthy. This includes keeping hand and arm gestures close to the body.
If we can’t convince ourselves of something, it’ll be quite difficult to persuade others. Have you ever known someone who talked so much that other people stopped listening? These individuals overwhelm their listeners with conversation, until the listener becomes confused, bored or both. Expecting a good outcome and knowing when to stop talking are two of the most important elements of persuading others.
Active listening means we strive to understand things from the speaker’s point of view. It includes letting the speaker know we’re listening and understood what was said. This is not the same as hearing, which is a physical process, where sound enters the eardrum and messages are passed to the brain. Active listening can be described as an attitude that leads to listening for shared understanding.
When we decide to listen for total meaning, we listen for the content of what’s said as well as the attitude behind what’s said. Is the speaker happy, angry, excited, sad…or something else entirely – that’s really listening.
Above all, remember the Golden Rule, the principle of treating others as you’d like to be treated – with kindness, empathy and respect. In so doing, your conversation will likely have a successful result.