How To Have Difficult Conversations

How To Have Difficult Conversations

We do not usually like challenging and difficult conversations and many of us will often try to avoid them or put them off for when we might be “ready” to do it. It is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable when we have to tackle someone about a difficult issue, especially if the conversation is face-to-face, and may we may feel awkward, embarrassed, nervous or afraid.

As a manager however this is part of the job and while it may be daunting it has to be done and done correctly.

Whatever the cause of the problem, the main aims when dealing with challenging conversations are to:

  • diffuse emotions
  • identify the problem
  • agree and implement solutions
  • take appropriate follow-up action

There are several things that we can do to prepare for challenging conversations that can help to reduce tension, minimise the risk of harm and increase the chances of a successful outcome. For example, we can prepare by:

  • having clear objectives
  • considering the available facts and options in advance – including what could happen during and after the conversation
  • planning the environment and approach – as far as possible

Clear objectives: knowing precisely what needs to be achieved during the conversation. The person leading the meeting needs to have a clear vision of the desired outcomes – the main focus and goals. As an example, if a manager needs to have a challenging conversation with a customer who has made a complaint, the main objectives could be to:

  • build a rapport with the customer
  • identify the problem
  • agree and implement solutions
  • take follow-up action – including reviewing policies and procedures to improve the organisation’s output

In this example, the manager’s desired outcomes are to have a satisfied customer and reduced complaints in the future.

Clear objectives help us to focus on the issues that needs to be resolved, and give us a guide about how the meeting needs to progress. By concentrating on goals, facts and options, we can shift the focus away from the individuals involved, which should reduce anxiety and negative emotions and increase the chances of a successful outcome.

Available facts and options: studying the background to the problem helps us to ensure that we have as many facts as possible before we start the conversation. We can then think about possible solutions, so that we are ready to discuss different options. Things to consider before the meeting include, for example:

  • the background to the issue that is causing the problem
  • possible solutions to the problem
  • potential problems that may occur in the meeting, or in the future
  • follow-up actions that may be required
  • what to do if actions are unsuccessful

Whilst thinking about the background to the problem, potential solutions and objectives, wider issues may be highlighted.

In the example of the manager dealing with the angry customer, the manager needs to think about what could happen if the customer becomes violent or upset during the challenging conversation.

To minimise distress, discomfort and other negative consequences of a challenging conversation, the person leading the meeting needs to plan the location and timing of the meeting, if possible. They need to make sure that the meeting is private and confidential so that the person can air their views and confidentiality is not breached.

Planning the environment and approach: depending on the circumstances and objectives of the discussion, the approach needs to be flexible as the meeting develops. There are a number of different approaches here including

  • formal or informal
  • warm and friendly or cool and distant
  • apologetic or demanding
  • direct and firm or gentle and vague
  • to listen and ask a few questions
  • to take command, speak and ask lots of questions

As with most things in life the more you plan and think ahead about the conversation the more likely you are to get the result that you are seeking.

Good Luck!

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