Difficult Conversations

Is there a conversation you’ve been putting off? Is there a coworker or family member with whom you need to talk – but don’t? Maybe you’ve tried and it didn’t turn out as you had hoped. Or maybe you fear that talking will only make things worse. Whatever the reason, you feel stuck and you’d like to free up that energy for more useful purposes.

Difficult conversations

One of the most common reasons I hear in my workshops for not holding difficult conversations is that people don’t know how to begin. Here are a few conversation openers I’ve picked up over the years and used many times.

I’d like to discuss something with you that I think will help us work together better.

I think we may have different ideas about _____________. When you have some time, I’d like to talk about it.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on ____________. Do you have a minute?

I need your help with what just happened (or – I need your help with __________). Can we talk?

I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about ___________. I really want to hear your thoughts on this.

All of these openers help to create an environment of respect and mutual purpose. You can say almost anything as long as you maintain these two critical conditions.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The art of conversation is like any art – with continued practice you acquire skill and ease. You, too, can create better working and family relationships, ease communication problems, and improve the quality of your environment. Here are 3 tips to get you started.

  1. A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (centered, supportive, curious, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say.
  2. Know and return to your purpose at difficult moments.
  3. Practice the conversation before holding the real one, either mentally or with a friend. Try out different scenarios and visualize yourself handling each with ease. Envision the outcome you’re hoping for.

If YOU wish to learn how to have “Difficult Conversations”? Allow me to help you.
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IT COULD WELL BE THE DIFFERENCE!

HOW TO HAVE A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION? THE 5 P’s

S1:E7 – Promote Yourself – The new normal for success THE CRITICAL DIALOGUE – LIFE AT WORK

We often shy away from difficult conversations – the critical dialogue as I call them. We must however realize that they are some of the most important conversations in our life and we just need the right approach to make them productive.

Why not try and transform each conversation into a learning conversation? Start by accepting that others will have a different perspective. Remember that each person has some strengths and a perspective  that will help make the conversation a productive one.

Learn to recognize the emotions that you often experience during difficult conversations, consider why this might be, and learn to share them with the person with whom you are engaged in the critical dialogue.

The other person’s emotions are just as valid as yours. Finally, we must remember that there are no absolutes in a difficult conversation. Instead of becoming immediately defensive when something in a difficult conversation challenges your very identity, try and consider if what they are saying is true and, if it is, why not own up to it?  You are as much responsible for the state of dialogue as the other.

Before you engage in the critical dialogue, keep the following in mind;

Purpose – What is the outcome you visualize at the end of the critical conversation?  What according to you is the least acceptable outcome?  How much are you willing to accede to the other person?  The reason you have to think this through is; often when we engage in a difficult conversation without having any clarity of our intended outcome, we become defensive, aggressive, withdrawn or simply insensitive to the other persons needs as well.  We end up taking ‘positions’ which we fiercely defend.  Also, look at what is a reasonable outcome which the other person will be willing to accept.  Start with the assumption that people are ‘reasonable’ if you provide them with enough reasons to be so.

Plan – Having a plan does help in managing a difficult conversation.  Remember, this plan is not about how you will win the conversation, it is about the way you intend to go about the critical dialogue.  The plan should also include how much time you intend to spend talking about it; what would you do when you face resistance or disagreement?  Would you like to park it or continue to engage?  Who would speak first? Ideally, you must in any critical dialogue allow as much time for the others to speak.  Seek first to understand is the plan here. 

It works as it is an act of not only showing respect for the others point of view but also gives you a complete understanding of the other persons real interests.  This is what we call the ‘work-plan’ of engaging in a difficult conversation. 

The other part of the plan is the time plan.  Most important is ‘when’?  You mustn’t engage in a critical dialogue or difficult conversation if you do not have enough time on your hands. 

Most often you find that people want to quickly bring the difficult conversation to a conclusion.  This could be because of the fear that they may end up agreeing to the other person or take the conversation as a contest.  People adopt what I call the “Shoot and Scoot” technique, where the opponent doesn’t get enough time to process what you have said and understand your point of view. 

While it might look like you have won, you will have a person who will become closed to any such future dialogue. So, fix a time when both can spend uninterrupted time.

Prepare yourself for the conversation by considering the difficult conversations for both sides. So, think about what happened from both points of view, be clear on your emotions, and ground yourself.

Decide whether it is even worth raising the conversation. For it to be worthy, it must be underpinned by good purposes. These are learning, sharing, and problem-solving. Avoid difficult conversations that are merely based upon blaming and judging others.

If you decide that the conversation is worth engaging in, make sure you start as an impartial observer and move towards inviting them to join you in solving the problem.  Remember, the attitude is ‘You and Me’ and not ‘You with Me’.

Be curious about their stories, and only then will they be interested in yours. If you find that the conversation goes off-course, then make sure you shepherd it back on track.  Never allow the conversation to get out of context.  Have an agreement that whenever each one of you find that the other is taking the conversation away from the context, you will sound an alert.

I have found that many difficult conversations go on a tangent and completely away from the context with which it started.  It ends up in blame and a complete lack of ownership from those engaged in the conversation.

Practice – Rehearse in your mind as to how you want the conversation to go.  Go through your opening statements once in your mind and also how you will respond when the conversation boils.  While we think it is complex, most conversations can be predicted for the direction in which it will move.  If you are ready, you will be able to execute it and keep it in context.  Remember, ‘nothing happens unless you have visualized it first in your mind’.

Problem-solve throughout the critical dialogue. For the conversation to be productive, you should identify solutions which would be useful for both sides.  In the end don’t hesitate to ask if the other person is satisfied with the outcome and is that the way in which future conversations could be engaged in productively.  Most people do not want to risk asking this question at the end of a difficult conversation.  They fear that it will open up a Pandora’s box of other problems.  I would say that it is worse to exit with just an ‘assumption’ of agreement than clarifying and assuring that it went well for both sides.

Are you ready? Remember the 5 P’s

Just how important is an apology?  Turning a critical dialogue to a more meaningful one!

The following two incidents , one at work and the other at home would put things in perspective.

I remember one incident in office where there was an impending senior management visit along with one of our client representative.  This account was crucial so much so that they contributed a significant amount to our bottom line.

Our boss gave us a whole lot of tasks to complete before the D-day.  Our team had burnt the midnight oil in getting things ready and waited with excitement to showcase our capabilities both to the client and to the senior management team.

The day arrived, the client and our management team arrived and were first involved in a long closed door meeting with our Boss.  Our excitement turned to dejection when post that meeting, the team just left and our Boss after sending them off got back to his seat and started to work as if we didn’t exist.

All of us were fuming and wanted to know what happened and why we were not met by the client and the management team.  We confronted our boss and what irritated us was his response “Hey, they didn’t find the need and so did I at that moment, so what’s the big deal?”

This is where it started to get ugly and we shot back in unison “next time we are not going to do an overnight’er and this is the last time.  You know we worked our ass off for you and you didn’t even bother to come by and let us know what happened”

This was going nowhere as he shot back “You guys don’t have to tell me how to run the business.  I am the one who decides and I am clear that it was the most appropriate thing to do at that time, that of not making them stay longer”

This response clearly indicated that the Boss here has taken the confrontation as a show of disrespect by his team on his judgment of the situation.  The dialogue had turned critical and heading towards conflict.

A similar dialogue at home, when I returned home late from work as we had a huge crisis to be dealt with in office.  It was both mentally and physically exhausting.  The moment I entered home, my Wife shouted “I’ve been waiting here like an idiot, thinking that you will come early today and take me out on a promised date and here you are who didn’t care to even inform me.  You never keep your promises and this is the last time I am believing you”

This dialogue was also turning critical.  I shot back “Oh! please give me a break.  I am already exhausted dealing with all that is happening in office and now I have you to content with at home”

Both these instance will tell you when the dialogue gets critical.  It’s the type of response we give or get during such conversation.

In both instances you will find that the parties involved i.e, Boss and Team, Spouse and Yourself, the outbursts were an indication that all felt violated and were fighting for respect.  People felt ‘hurt’.

The best option is for you to step out of the ‘content’ of the dialogue and see what caused this aggressive response.

An apology would have done a world of good and moved the dialogue into a more meaningful understanding of each other.

saying sorry quoteAn apology which sincerely expresses your regret in your role to have caused that hurt in others.  The boss could have simply responded by saying “I am so sorry, I couldn’t give you guys an opportunity to showcase your work, after all the hard work you put in”  This would have led the team to then calm down and start asking more meaningful questions like “what transpired in the meeting?” etc.

Similarly, I could have just responded with something like “I am so sorry, I know I screwed up and couldn’t make it early and I didn’t call you”  I couldn’t extricate myself from the mess in office”  Would have brought my wife to at least calm down and ask “what happened” instead of blaming me.

In both instances I felt an apology would have moved the dialogue from critical to meaningful.  My wife keeps reminding me all the time that a “sorry” would help than attacking back.  It irritates her that instead of showing some respect, I start to attack as a defense mechanism.  It then escalates into a full scale show down with no meaningful conclusion and a lot of ‘hurt’ as residue.

We seem to always get caught in the fight to win and our ego adds fuel to the fire.  The best way is to sacrifice a bit of your ego by admitting your mistakes.

Now I know, we place high value to our ‘ego’.  But whenever you give up something you value, you are rewarded with something even more valuable, i.e., a healthy dialogue and better outcome.

All it takes is an apology!