10 Techniques Every Leader Needs for Successfully Navigating a Tough Conversation

By AmyK Hutchens, Communications Expert

Tough conversations are attempted…and avoided every single day. For most leaders, the commitment to a better, safer, more inclusive future comes second to personal comfort, often by subconscious influence. The costs of a fumbled conversation are high — financially, culturally, and personally. In a poll conducted by Crucial Learning, a top 20 leadership training company, 80% of executives resist leading a conversation they dread, even though they know they need to facilitate. 1 in 10 admitted to avoiding a tough conversation for more than two years. What Crucial Learning also discovered is if navigated successfully, improved communication can save an organization $7500 on average.

Civil discourse is part of strategic leadership and the more skilled executives get at conducting them, the better the future can be for their people, company, industry, communities, and the world at large. Even just one conversation that challenges current thinking can create a path for safer, higher-performing, more innovative and empathetic teams. You are your own instrument of change.

Here are 10 ways to explore diverse perspectives, address difficult issues, respectfully disagree, and still engage in constructive dialogue.

1. Set Your Intention

Particularly with controversial subjects, we can be tempted to defend or convince. But the goal is to connect. Connection comes .

To be a constructive connector, we must first ask ourselves:

  1. Do I genuinely want to be open & curious?
  2. Do I want to constructively engage so I can better understand another person’s experiences, views, and belief systems?
  3. Do I sincerely desire to create a better future for all?
  4. What’s at stake for me in this conversation?
  5. What are the influences and/or motivations behind the questions I’m asking?
  6. What am I hoping to experience as a result of this conversation?

When approaching a tough topic set your intentions to connect, seek understanding, and honor all voices.

Helpful (Internal) Phrases:

2. Acknowledge It’s a Tough Conversation

There’s no perfect script when it comes to a tough conversation. It takes courage and vulnerability.

Helpful Phrases:

3. Share your experience. Invite theirs.

Proving another “wrong” or “inferior” when you disagree comes from a place of fear, judgment, and will naturally incite defensiveness. Defensiveness prevents progress.

Speak from your experience. Share your story. Ask about their experience. Seek to understand their perspective and how they got to where they are today. This does not mean you will agree with it. Leaning in and asking questions allows them to share the thoughts and beliefs behind their stated viewpoint which results in solution-based, positive outcomes.

Helpful Phrases:

4. Be a Humble Contributor

No one possesses of the answers — and a little vulnerability can go a long way. First acknowledge that the topic you are addressing is a big challenge. Then share that it requires multi-faceted and complex solutions. This noted complexity conveys that no one, including the people involved in the current conversation, have it all figured out.

Helpful Phrases:

5. Practice — And Set the Expectation — for Respect

No one likes to be interrupted. Or yelled at. Called names. The list goes on.

All of these behaviors equate to lazy thinking and a lack of respect. Everyone has the right to express themselves, but in some cases civil discourse is replaced with immature antics. As disappointing as someone’s behaviors might be, you don’t need to match them. If someone shows a purposeful lack of respect toward you, by all means do not accept it. Disengage from their unproductive shenanigans. Invite another conversation when you’re ready to re-engage.

Helpful Phrases:

6. Invite Others to Take the Talking Stick

Another technique to successfully navigate a tough conversation in a setting is to pass the Talking Stick to someone who infrequently holds it. Inclusion is critical to honoring everyone’s voices. Each person has the right to individually participate or not, AND, we need to make a full-hearted effort to make space for each voice to be heard. When you’re done speaking, direct the conversation to a specific individual.

Helpful Phrases:

7. Ask Open-Ended, Non-Judgmental Questions

Judgey-judge questions cause people to feel defensive. They escalate tensions, shut down connection, and they can cause a conversation to turn hostile quickly. For example, instead of asking:

Replace them with …

Helpful Phrases:

Tensions rise and tempers flare when conversations get intense and people are not seeing eye-to-eye. Sometimes it’s hard to agree to disagree. First, take a beat to reset a point under discussion. Find a fundamental base from which to agree and re-align. Second, move forward with a conscious decision to re-engage, set the topic aside for a new one, or continue the conversation at another time.

Switching the focus of a conversation away from the conflict and focusing on a commitment you share is the fastest way to create a connection.

Helpful Phrases:

Once you get that verbal “yes” or non-verbal head nod of a shared agreement, you can then re-direct how you wish to move forward. You might state a new question, move on to a less controversial topic, or re-establish the purpose and unity of the group [if in a group setting]. You might even choose to reset by reminding the individual or group of your shared values of supporting one another and honoring & respecting each person’s voice.

Helpful Phrases:

  • [insert why it makes sense from her perspective] . Share yours.
  • [insert relevant agreement point & get agreement]or

8. Validate the Other Person’s Emotions

Understanding and acknowledging another’s emotions does not mean you align with their beliefs. It means you’re listening. It also demonstrates your desire to seek understanding while giving them the dignity of their experience.

Helpful Phrases:

Insert whatever emotion you deem correct. And it’s okay if you’re wrong. They’ll let you know, because you’ve respectfully asked them to verify or correct your interpretation.

Follow with:

9. Prevent a Full-Blown Fall Out

Sometimes you’re caught off guard by someone’s comment. In the moment you’re so shocked, embarrassed, or blindsided you aren’t able to address the comments. On the other hand, you may be consciously choosing to respond thoughtfully at a later time, instead of instantly reacting. You can always revisit someone and say, You might add,

Additionally, avoid taking a tough conversation too far. If you find yourself getting too triggered or too heated, you have every right to push pause and give yourself time to reset. No one is sincerely heard nor understood when connection is replaced with power plays, bullying or full-on hostility.

Occasionally, you’ll run into someone who is more interested in baiting you than connecting with you. Stop. Disengage. Walk away. Before you lose your cool or have your blood pressure skyrocket. This is understandably stressful. According to the APA’s 2020 findings on the physical and emotional toll of increased stress, nearly half of adults (49%) report their behavior gets negatively affected. From increased tension in their bodies (21%), to “snapping” or getting angry very quickly (20%), to unexpected mood swings (20%), or screaming or yelling at a loved one (17%), it’s important to lead a tough conversation when you can stay centered and grounded.

Remember, the goal is to engage in intelligent discourse and partake in informative and inclusive dialogue. Tough conversations take stamina, humility, courage, strength, and an open mind, heart and spirit. And the ROI is exponential when looking at creating belonging and establishing trust which improves innovation and performances, increases retention, and makes your organization more attractive to new talent.

10. Close with a

‘Nuff said.

[If appropriate, return to them with subsequent thoughts and/or actions you’ve taken based on your commitment to stay engaged.]

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Culturati is a community of CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and other c-suite leaders who practice & study culture building and share our play books.