What difficult conversation is sitting on a shelf patiently waiting for you? How long has it been there?
Many people avoid challenging conversations as long as they can. They try their best to minimize the issue or hope the person will move away—but those strategies rarely work.
Challenging conversations are often delayed because they pose unique problems. In Crucial Conversations, Kerry Paterson and his co-authors highlight three main obstacles:
• The stakes are high.
• Opinions differ.
• Emotions are strong.
Given these factors, it’s easy to understand why these conversations are seen as difficult.
Often it is the lead-up to the talk that is so tough. The obsessing. The endless run-throughs of dialogue in your head. The constantly worrying about what could go wrong.
Here are some of the most common fears my clients describe as reasons for delaying challenging conversations.
• Fear the other person will respond negatively and emotionally.
• Fear they will respond negatively and emotionally.
• Fear the relationship will suffer.
• Fear the situation will get worse.
These negative outcomes can occur. Well-intentioned talks can deteriorate. However, most of my clients—when they have prepared for their challenging conversation in advance—say they were surprised how smoothly the conversation proceeded and how much they learned in the process.
What’s the best way to prepare for a challenging conversation? These are some key considerations.
What is the outcome you are looking for? What do you need to say and do to make it happen? It’s important to be really clear because this outcome will be the anchor for your conversation. I often advise clients to write down the desired outcome and review it right before the conversation. If possible, keep it in view during the conversation.
What obstacles might get in your way?
How will you manage those obstacles? If you know your colleague tends to get defensive, what can you do to prevent or fix this? If your colleague will be totally surprised by this conversation, do you need to prepare for one discussion or two? If you know this is an emotional issue for you, how will you manage your reactions?
How will you open the conversation?
Remember you have spent a lot of time thinking about this talk and preparing for it. The other person has not. Your first few sentences, the tone of your voice, and your facial expression will set the stage for the entire conversation.
During the conversation, it is crucial to remain curious about the other person, and his/her thoughts and feelings. This will invite engagement and participation. As Douglas Stone and his co-authors wrote in Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, “People almost never change without first feeling understood.”
Stone and his colleagues also wrote about the need to both plan your agenda and to give up control of what will happen. “Learning that you can’t control the other person’s reaction, and that is can be difficult to try, can be incredibly liberating. It not only gives the other person the space to react however they need to, but also takes a huge amount of pressure off you.”
The most effective leaders are skilled in managing challenging conversations.
They are particularly talented at managing their emotions, sharing their story, expressing interest in the other person’s story and feelings, and finding resolution at the end of the discussion. They also listen at least as much as they talk.
Are you ready to prepare for your next challenging conversation?