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engage in a difficult conversation without having any clarity of our intended outcome, we become defensive, aggressive, withdrawn or simply insensitive to the other persons needs as well.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

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