I will be the first to admit that I am terrible at difficult conversations. When I know a difficult conversation needs to take place, I will often practice what I am going to say ahead of time (often in the car, causing fellow drivers to do a double-take as I preach to the steering wheel), and yet when the moment arrives, I am a complete mess. So, in the interest of improving myself, I have embarked on a educational journey of how to get better at having difficult conversations. Do you want to know what I’ve found?
Share the Facts
First off, you should identify why the conversation will be difficult. Is it a difference of opinion? A potential risk for emotions to escalate out of control? Or, does it involve high stakes? Perhaps you don’t have all the answers yet, but you need to break some bad news. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers in the first conversation, but you need to openly share the facts of the situation. When all else fails in my personal and professional life, I simply start stating the facts as I see them. Facts are not insulting and often persuasive. Feelings or opinions, however, lead to defensiveness and disrespectful behavior. Start the conversation by simply telling your story, a story that clearly explains why the facts are a concern. Use phrases like “This leads me to believe….” or “I began to think that…” and allow room for the other person’s version of the story/facts. We don’t know everything and there are often facts that we don’t have. Get the whole story first, before you jump to potential solutions.
Oh, the Body Language
Most of the literature on having difficult conversations starts with body language. And, let me tell you, I do not have a poker face. Everything that I think and feel comes across in my posture. But thankfully, this is something that I know about myself and can actively police when the time comes for a difficult conversation. First up, remember to have a relaxed and open posture and use natural hand gestures. Don’t just sit in your chair, clamped into a frozen ball. When you know it will be difficult, choose a distraction-free time to have that conversation—such as in a closed office on a light day, not in the middle of the main hallway on a busy day. And lastly, remember to look people in the eye – or in the forehead if you are nervous.
Once you have the full story and all the facts, begin outlining a solution. Avoid absolutes and always allow for different opinions by making it a safe environment. Document the solution with who, does what, by when, and with explicit follow-up deadlines. If you hold yourself and the other person accountable, subsequent conversations surrounding this issue are not as difficult. Remember, it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers after the first conversation. Reflect on the situation, but do not avoid it – bad situations will likely not improve all on their own. Take some time to consider your own emotional intelligence, tone of voice, and body language. If we can do that, with a little bit of perseverance and self-discipline, we can become better at having those difficult conversations.