The Art And Science Of Having Difficult Conversations

The Art And Science Of Having Difficult Conversations

“Difficult” conversations are part of any manager’s job and is an inevitable outcome of working with people as people cannot be programmed, will always surprise you and will always look for their own way to carry out tasks.

In having these conversations managers will frequently walk away from the interchange wishing that they had said something different, had said things in a more logical manner and regretting that the emotion of the situation took over.

It is a very hard task to move from a conversation that is comfortable (but which is actually going nowhere) to a conversation that is uncomfortable (where the real issue is presented and discussed) and it takes some real degree of courage to stay in that uncomfortable zone for any period of time, and certainly long enough to get things into the open.

For the vast majority of us there will always be a gap between what we wanted to say and what we actually said!

For there to be an effective and meaningful outcome, we need to use fewer words which have a greater impact; this makes good use of time and gives some traction to the conversation in terms of moving forward.

To do this we need to follow the three-stage process outlined below:

  1. Explain the gap between us: the critical phase where we clearly explain the issue and get on the table what we need to talk through. Tricky, a challenge but not that difficult.
  2. Explore the gap: hopefully some open dialogue here built around carefully planned mixtures of open and closed questions. This is where there is a clear movement towards plain, vanilla discussion to real dialogue and openness.
  3. Eliminate the gap: the final stage where a clear and mutually agreed consensus has been reached with a well-defined Action Plan.

Explaining the gap is a particularly tricky area as you are forced to table the issue – to bring focus and power this needs to be done in as few words as possible. This could be phrased as:

  • The issue is ……
  • An example is ……..
  • What I feel is …….
  • What is at stake is ……………
  • I want to resolve this with you …….
  • What do you think and feel ………………

The trick here is to be hard on the issue but soft on the person in order to get to the heart of the matter.

Exploring the gap is built around the following areas:

  • The situation – facts and perceptions
  • What both parties want from the situation
  • What is getting in the way of progress?
  • What are the implications of the way forward?
  • Testing out what has been agreed

Once this has been work through you will be ready to set up an Action Plan to remedy the current situation.

Try the technique out, making sure that all sides understand all of the issues and all of the agreed actions.

Good Luck!

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