Monday Mornings with Madison

Skills for Success – Part 2

Handling Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are some of the most awkward, tense, tie-you-up-in-knots moments in people’s lives… both their personal and professional lives.  In fact, there are thousands of books, articles and seminars on the topic of how to handle difficult conversations.  One large training firm that provides professional workshops started offering a seminar titled ‘Dealing with Difficult People’, and it quickly became one of their most well-attended and lucrative programs.  While it is not really a skill that anyone wants to be good at, most people understand that is an important skill for success.

The first step is to consider “Why is it a difficult conversation in the first place?”  Sometimes, it’s because of the relationship between the parties such as a subordinate speaking to a supervisor.  Sometimes it is because of the content of the conversation, such as communicating a criticism or pointing out a harsh truth.  Sometimes it is because  the person on either end of the talk is a difficult or hostile person.  No matter the circumstances, there are strategies on how to handle even the most difficult conversation.

Here are ten tips to help master the handling of difficult conversations.

Tip 1:  Avoid falling into a combative mentality.

Difficult conversations turn toxic because the conversants have fallen into a combative mentality.  It helps to think about the definition of “conversation.”  A conversation is ‘a speaking together’; a cooperative venture.  But in a competition or battle, the goal is to win.  In a conversation, no one should ‘win.’  When a conversation takes a combative approach, it turns into a zero-sum game where there is a winner and a loser. Except that in combative conversation, there are really no winners.  Everyone looks bad and everyone loses.  The real pitfall is the combative mentality itself.

Tip 2:  Manage emotions.

This is easy to say and hard to do.  First, start by managing your own emotions.  It is impossible for a difficult conversation to have a good outcome if emotions are out of control.  Then, it is important to manage the emotions of the other person by diffusing hard feelings and affirming the person’s value.

Tip 3:  Seek to understand complex problems.

Sometimes the reason a conversation is difficult is because the topic is complicated.  If the topic of the conversation was straightforward, chances are that it would have been resolved. Rolling multiple problems into a less-complex Über-Problem is usually not a solution but rather an illusion. To avoid oversimplifying, remember that if the issue weren’t complicated, it probably wouldn’t be so hard to discuss.

Tip 4:  Don’t fear difficult conversations.

In managing conflict, people will often overestimate the risk of having the conversation or confronting the conflict. Sometimes, we create stories in our minds about how the situation could easily slide out of control, which amplifies the perceived risk. This is a conflict avoidance strategy that, while effective in the short term, is not sustainable or helpful in personal or professional relationships.

Tip 5:  Demonstrate respect.

One key to avoiding conflict, runaway emotions and oversimplification is to start from a position of respect for the issue being addressed as well as the other person in the conversation.  It is vitally important to respect the person with whom you are speaking, and respect yourself.  Respond in ways that you can be proud of later.  A respectful tone also helps to diffuse hostility, impatience and frustration.

Tip 6:  Focus on the goal.

While it is not uncommon for a difficult conversation to generate unpleasant feelings, no one wants to feel fear, anger, embarrassment, or defensiveness.  It often leads to one person in the conversation to either respond aggressively or shut down completely.  To diffuse such emotions, it is important to state simply what you really want. Focus on the goal.  Go into a difficult conversation with a clear, realistic preferred outcome; the knowledge of how you want your working relationship with your counterpart to be; and what obstacles could interfere with achieving those goals.  The hard emotions won’t evaporate but it allows the focus to move to the outcome.

Tip 7:  Address unproductive behavior or responses.

Just because one party in the conversation tries to avoid a combative mentality doesn’t mean the other will too.  If the counterpart resorts to lying, threatening, stonewalling, crying, yelling, sarcasm, silence or accusations, it is important to avoid being lured into the same trap.   The most effective strategy is to disarm this behavior by addressing it. For instance, if a counterpart cries or screams, a good response would be to say “I am unable to speak with you if you are crying or yelling.  Do you need a moment to compose yourself?”

Tip 8:  Prepare but don’t rehearse.

In anticipation of a tough conversation, it’s instinctive to rehearse key points. But a difficult conversation seldom follows a script.  Once a discussion has begun, the counterpart can react in a myriad of ways.  A script approach will only hamper the ability to listen effectively and react accordingly. Instead of rehearsing a script, it is better to prepare by answering these questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • What would my counterpart say the problem is?
  • What is my preferred outcome?
  • What is my preferred working relationship with my counterpart?

This will help to develop a sense of direction without hindering the conversation.

Tip 9:  Keep an open mind.

It is normal to make assumptions about the other person’s intentions during a difficult conversation.  Some may see every disagreement as just a misunderstanding between two well-intentioned people.  But others may feel that the discussion is actually an ill-intentioned attack in disguise.  This can derail a difficult conversation.  It is important to remember that we don’t know another person’s intentions and they don’t know ours.  When it appears two people are not understanding one another, a productive comment would be:  “I’m realizing as we talk that I don’t fully understand how you see this problem.”  It is a powerful way to get a conversation back on track.

Tip 10:  Seek to negotiate a win-win outcome.

True dialogue can only occur when conversants are able and willing to share their respective assumptions, acknowledge and validate each others views as legitimate and important, and then reach a broader, shared set of assumptions that all have value.  By embracing each other’s positions and desires as true possibilities that deserve consideration, effective, respectful, and insightful communication can lead to win-win outcomes superior to what individuals had in mind going into the situation.  Growing trust and shared meaning will also yield better outcomes and the capacity to make better decisions faster in the future.

The next time you are in a difficult conversation, remember these tips and proceed calmly.  Seek first to understand and then to be understood, all the while focused on achieving a win-win solution.

Quote of the Week

“What will support any relationship is clear, complete and conscious conversations when upsets or breakdowns occur.” Iyanla Vanzant


© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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