It's Good to Talk: 5 Practical Steps to Managing Difficult Conversations

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16 April 2020
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

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There are many different types of difficult conversation that you can have, and what’s considered difficult will be different for each of us. For managers, it could be having to give negative feedback to an employee, or even having to let them go; for others, it might be raising sensitive issues or challenging someone more senior. We’ll all experience some form of conflict or have to deliver bad news in our working lives, which can become difficult unless handled very carefully.

In essence, the conversations themselves aren’t difficult. The words are no harder to say than any others. The difficulty comes from the emotions we attach to these conversations. You may find yourself feeling particularly angry or upset about the cause of the conversation or may be anxious about how the other people involved will react.

However you feel about these conversations, it’s important to know how to handle them properly and effectively – it’s rarely a good idea to let big issues linger undiscussed. Being able to navigate these conversations will give you increased confidence and will lower the stress you feel by them in the future. Also, if you’re not intimidated by tough conversations, even those with stronger personalities will find it harder to intimidate you and you’ll be more persuasive and influential towards others.

When faced with a worrying or anxiety provoking situation, our body’s natural reaction is to enter the ‘fight or flight’ mode. This evolutionary trait makes us more ready to stand our ground against an opponent, or to get away from them. Neither of these reactions is right when handling a delicate conversation. By properly preparing ourselves for the situation, you’ll have time to plan ahead and keep your emotions in check.

The best way to prepare will be different for each conversation, but there are a few steps to take which will be mostly universal.


Plan ahead

Firstly, be clear about what you want to achieve from the conversation you are about to have, and gather all the information you’ll need. If you’re giving feedback, make sure you know exactly what you want to say and be prepared to back it up with examples. If you’re letting someone go, it’s important to have your full reasoning ready and that you’re able to talk them through the relevant next steps. Take time to consider how the person may feel too. Whether or not you’re the person initiating the conversation or have been asked to join it, as long as you have some prior warning it’s happening, you have time to consider what you want to say and how you will say it.

It’s also important, as much as possible, to find the right time and place to have your conversation. In normal times, a private room is probably going to be more appropriate than the middle of an open plan office. You may want the meeting room with or without a window. When people are working remotely this may not be possible. Make sure you use video functions for virtual meetings to make it as much like a face-to-face meeting as possible. Be mindful of whether other people should be present (for example someone from HR), but don’t let it seem like they’re suddenly being ganged up on or publicly embarrassed.

Tackle the real issues

As tempers rise, tears start falling or harsh words are said, it’s important to stay on target. Remember what your original goal was. Was it to win an argument or was it to actually solve a dispute? Was it to prove your ideas are better or was it to find the best solution to a problem? Ego and a desire to win can often take over, but the more prepared you are going in, the better your chances of keeping yourself on track.

It helps to avoid talking when emotions are high. Disagreements or giving someone bad news often raises their emotions – especially if it was unexpected. If you can, wait to talk until everyone’s a bit calmer. Without seeming uncaring or patronising, keep calm and make sure you’re talking with reason and not gut reactions and emotional responses. Do not immediately shout or argue back if that’s what they respond to you with. Take time out if you need to as this can help you manage your state.

Managing the conversation

The way you start the conversation will set the tone for everything to follow. From the outset, make it clear you will listen to them and try to understand their point of view. In a difficult conversation, clear communication is key.

In communication, there can often be a difference between what the speaker intends to say and what the listener hears and understands. To minimise this, start actively listening to each other. This means focusing on not just their words but their intentions, listening without any prior judgement or expectation and asking for clarification if you aren’t entirely sure you understand their points. It often helps to paraphrase the point you’re responding to, which gives them a chance to correct you if they think you’ve misunderstood.

Be solution focused
Ultimately, the aim of any difficult conversation should be to find a mutually acceptable way forward. This means working towards a win-win (or as close as possible) scenario that all sides can be happy with. Even with power dynamics, such as seniority, at play, the best possible outcome will be one that both sides are able to agree to.

You should be assertive and hold onto the principles which are important to you, but this doesn’t mean being unmoving in your desired outcome. Don’t expect it to go exactly the way you planned it in your head. Listen to the other person, they might have some unexpected insight which will lead you to a better solution. Be honest with them about your point of view and ask them for the same in return.

Manage your own emotions

You can say things calmly and carefully, but in the end, you can only be in control of your own emotions and reactions. If you get aggressive or challenging, the other person is more likely to react in this way too. If you can stay calm, then you can stay more in control of yourself and the conversation.

If you start feeling getting emotional, try to be aware of what you’re feeling and label it. For example, recognising whether you’re feeling angry or anxious. Then, try to identify exactly what’s causing that feeling. This can help you reframe your emotional response by changing your interpretation of a situation’s meaning. It also gives you more mindful control back to your behaviour. Even in the middle of a conversation, taking a deep breath will help you to refocus your mind, and if necessary, it’s better to ask for a short pause while you collect yourself than to say something you’ll regret later.

Overall, it’s important to remember to plan ahead, know your purpose and listen carefully to the person you’re having a conversation with. But even more crucially, you must take note of your emotions and theirs while finding an outcome you can both be happy with.


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