Top 10 Ways to Handle Difficult Conversations
Working as a public health inspector has put me in many positions where I’ve had to have difficult conversations. However, it doesn’t stop there. Owning a brick and mortar business with my husband also puts us in difficult conversations when we have to discuss budgeting, marketing, and client needs.
The fallout from conversations gone wrong is not pretty: trust and intimacy suffer, while resentment and misunderstanding build. But it is possible to improve the way we handle our most difficult conversations. Our relationships need to nourish us, not deplete us. Consider the following:
- Set an agenda. Lay out the problem to be discussed, indicate that you want to hear the other person’s perspective and to speak your own, and that you’d like problem-solving to follow that.
- Listen first. Until people feel heard and safe, they won’t have the mind-space to hear you. It’s alright to have long pauses in conversations and allow the other party to lay down their thoughts and concerns. Stop finishing sentences or assuming.
- Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. The authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most found that people typically spend only about 10% of a difficult conversation on inquiry and 90% on advocating a position. A better balance leads to a better outcome.
- Strive to understand what people are thinking, feeling and needing, not just saying. The way to do this is to mentally step into their shoes and look at the situation from their perspective. Successful leaders are very adept at doing this.
- Keep the focus on understanding what is happening between the two of you, not on “winning” or being right. My husband and I are watching Season 9 of Suits (a show about lawyers) and I particularly like this season because the lawyers want to win and keep their clients, but wrong buttons get pushed and they lose sight of why they are fighting for the client in the first place. But the way they come through is based in their firm’s corporate culture – they are always there for each other and call out on one another when a lawyer has lost focus.
- Don’t ignore feelings. They are often at the heart of every difficult conversation—and they matter. Listen to Episode 58 of the Resilience Minute Show where I share a strategy on how to “Communicate Positively”. Its only 1-munute of audio.
- Stay centered, supportive, curious and committed to problem-solving. Your attitude will greatly influence what you say. Ask questions starting with – what, when, how – and keep your tone neutral.
- Notice when you become off-center. Breathe. Choose to return to yourself and your purpose…..and stop talking.
- Return to asking questions about the other’s point of view if the conversation becomes adversarial. If that doesn’t help, take a recess and cool down and set a time to return to the conversation or suggest a negotiator to keep the conversation healthy.
- Be persistent in your efforts to keep the conversation constructive, instead of getting frustrated and walking away.