5 Steps To Navigate A Difficult Conversation

This article originally appeared on carenmerrick.com — helping high achievers amplify their leadership to become board ready and board worthy.
“When is the last time you confronted someone at work or at home about his or her behavior and ended the conversation having enriched the relationship?”

Communications expert Susan Scott asks this in her book, Fierce Conversations.

This intriguing question suggests the very real notion that it is possible to both confront and enrich at the same time.

Imagine that — instead of denial, anxiety or even knots in your stomach, you could actually have a difficult conversation that is a breakthrough.

I’ve been intrigued by this idea, because recently I’ve received many emails from leaders who write that one of the reasons they avoid difficult conversations and conflict resolution is because they fear that the relationship or situation will get worse.

Yet the opposite is more likely.

In my past I’ve either engaged in a difficult conversation too soon (without adequate preparation, or when emotions were running highest), or not at all.

Does this sound like you, too?

If you don’t address a difficult issue, it will not go away and you and your colleague are missing out on growth, resolution, and peace.

There are simple techniques for conflict resolution that you can apply in your situation.

It is easier said than done. Yet if you begin with the goal of enriching your relationship before, during, and after your difficult conversation, it can enhance the trajectory and give you the courage and momentum to achieve a win/win — an improved outcomeand a better relationship.

Every person has value and is worthy of respect; even and especially when they need to be confronted.

Think through these steps and give yourself credit for your willingness to engage in a difficult conversation, instead of avoiding it.

1. Get clear on the situation.

This includes knowing yourself, and assessing the situation. When your goal is to have a difficult conversation that enriches, it says positive things about you.

As leadership expert Karin Hurt of Let’s Grow Leaders affirms:

“Confident, humble leaders have difficult conversations because… they care so deeply they want people to grow; they know it’s not about them; they care more about helping than protecting themselves.”

I often encourage people to take their Strengthsfinder assessment because it helps them better understand their strengths and helps them appreciate how they perceive the world and process information and experiences. It offers an additional bonus of helping you become more compassionate of others too.

Keep your own strengths and weaknesses in mind as you clearly outline the situation to be discussed.

Remember, blaming doesn’t help, so don’t bring that to the conversation.

However, it can be healthy to vent any blaming thoughts you have prior to the meeting — write it down, or talk it over with a trusted person. Just don’t use it in the conversation because it simply won’t help.

Harvard Business Review suggests you plan, but don’t script the whole conversation because no difficult conversation goes according to plan.

Leadership expert Gina Abudi suggests these steps:

“Write down what I see as the problem and why I believe it is a problem — Basically, identify what’s bothering you about the situation (this helps me to really get a grip on my feelings — in writing it either looks reasonable or doesn’t).”
“Write down what I believe the other person’s position is and how they may see me reacting to the issue. While certainly I can’t read someone else’s mind, it helps me to think about how they may approach the issue — I try to, effectively, put myself in their shoes.”

And begin with the end in mind: what would be the ideal outcome?

2. Reach out with diplomacy.

Judy Ringer author of Unlikely Teachers, Finding the Hidden Gifts is Daily Conflictsuggests a few openers that have worked for her:

  • “I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I’d like to talk about ____________ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.
  • I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
  • I need your help with something. Can we talk about it (soon)? If the person says, “Sure, let me get back to you,” follow up with him.
  • I think we have different perceptions about _____________________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
  • I’d like to talk about ___________________. I think we may have different ideas about how to _____________________.
  • I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about ___________. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.”

When you feel prepared, arrange to meet face to face. Never try to resolve a difficult situation in email. And don’t have the conversation when you are angry. Take the time you need to get calm before engaging in conflict resolution. Most things can wait and the conversation and outcome are so much better when you create space.

Pick a good time to have the conversation — after you have processed intense emotions and when you are calm. Have the conversation when you have carved out time, after you have prepared, and when neither one of you is tired!

3. Have the conversation.

As you begin, affirm your appreciation for your colleague and also find at least a few positive attributes to tell them. If you value people to begin with, this will not be a big challenge.

Once you’ve laid out the situation, ask them for their perspective.

4. Listen without judging or blaming.

As expert Lolly Daksal recommends:

“Don’t shut down. When conversations are difficult, bring a mindset of inquiry. Be open to hearing what the other person has to say and observing how they seem to be feeling. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. This approach puts everyone at ease and helps keep people at their best.“

Ask open-ended questions and don’t rush in to fill the silence.

5. Anticipate and prepare for various reactions and outcomes.

Anger, sadness, or intense emotions may emerge. Keep your cool and don’t mimic them. You can’t control the other person or their level of skill in navigating a difficult conversation. That doesn’t mean to hide your feelings; but you will do better if you remain calm.

Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs says:

“No one likes to receive bad news, but managers can make the situation worse by mimicking employees’ emotions. Accept that they might get angry, or they might cry.”

Reynolds warns to avoid getting triggered by these emotions, sticking instead to the emotional intention (calm) that you set before the meeting.

After I had been in leadership for a few years, the inevitable occurred and I had to let go of my first manager. She was smart and experienced, but the job and she were not a good match.

With an HR expert by my side, I finally gave her the news that in spite of efforts to improve, it was time to part company.

She burst into tears and I was very sad for the pain and disappointment she was experiencing. But I remained calm because I knew it was the best decision — sometimes the hardest decisions are difficult! I was grateful when, later, she contacted me to thank me for letting her go as she found a position that was much better.

Not every difficult conversation results in immediate progress. While following the steps above can help diminish a negative outcome, you still may encounter defensiveness or denial. There are always colleagues, people you like and respect, who may not respond productively, at least not immediately. You may have to continue the conversation with a specific, measurable action plan.

They may get defensive and that is where Alison Green of Ask a Manager says:

“…. make it impossible for the person to experience your conversations as adversarial. If they feel safe, even the most defensive people can stay calm, listen, and even become collaborative problem solvers.”

Remember the benefits of a difficult conversation far outweigh the risks. In fact, you risk more by not having the difficult conversation than when you do.

Conflict resolution won’t be easy, but the benefits are worth the effort.

I’m a serial entrepreneur (start-ups in tech and social impact) most notably co-founder and EVP of webMethods, Inc. which I grew from my basement to a $200m global, Nasdaq company with 1,100 team members. I now serve on several public company boards, write, speak, and advise high performance leaders. I’m married with two sons and our family loves to sail on our catamaran, Glad In It.

For tips on how to communicate for greater success, download my free guide, 7 Secrets To Highly Effective Communications.