Whether you’re an entrepreneur handling a crisis with a client, a manager addressing a performance issue like absenteeism or an employee tackling a disagreement with a colleague, these eight actionable steps will help you navigate a tricky conversation with finesse.
1. Set a date
Formally schedule a meeting and send the person you need to speak with an invitation, briefly outlining what you’d like to discuss. Avoid going into too much detail, especially if there’s potential for conflict. Stick to facts and don’t get personal. This way, you keep the playing field open and neutral, and allow the other party to prepare for the discussion.
2. Create a safe space
People communicate best when they know they’re in environments where they feel safe. So ensure the space you meet in is private, reasonably comfortable and free from distractions.
3. Prepare what you’d like to say
Get all your facts straight. Gather and review all the information that led you to identify the need for a discussion in the first place. Then take time to write down what you want to communicate. It’s important to do this so that during the actual conversation, you don’t get side-tracked or drawn into making unnecessarily personal comments. Plan to end the conversation with a resolution on the way forward.
4. Find a common goal
According to author and leadership advisor, Mike Myatt, people are more likely to be open to collaborating and resolving issues when they feel their objectives are being taken into account. Initiate this process by introducing a shared goal for the conversation – like agreeing to find a way to work in harmony.
5. Stick to “I” and avoid “you”
Speak from your perspective and avoid playing the blame game. If you’re at fault, accept responsibility, and, if the situation allows, offer an alternative you can commit to. If you need to address poor behaviour, focus on exactly that – the behaviour, not the person.
“Late reports make us look unprofessional” is much better than “you’re tardy and making us look bad”.
Summarising what you’ve heard the other person say in your own words forces you to absorb their perspective, gives them the opportunity to correct you if you’ve misunderstood, and proves you were really listening and trying to understand.
7. Anticipate strong reactions
Ensure you’re emotionally ready to handle an intense reaction. Tears, denial and finger-pointing are all likely responses to hairy conversations. If you’ve anticipated these types of responses, it will be easier for you to control your own emotions. Keep calm and either steer the conversation back to finding a solution or, if appropriate, end the conversation. If someone is too emotional to talk about something, it’s healthiest to reschedule the conversation for a better time.
8. End with a plan
Make sure you conclude with a plan that meets both your objectives and serves the common goal established near the beginning of the conversation. Aim to get the other person’s agreement to strive to meet this target and book a follow-up meeting where progress can be reviewed.
See difficult conversations as an opportunity
Although difficult conversations can be stressful they can provide you with the ideal opportunity for positive change and growth. Shoving issues under the carpet can breed resentment and distrust. Having hard discussions that focus on finding solutions gives you the chance to build better relationships.