Whether we’re dealing with under-performing employees, challenging direct reports, negotiating with difficult clients or discussing breakdowns on projects, difficult conversations arise. Few leaders understand the dynamics of difficult conversations. Most avoid them.
Great leaders skillfully decipher the structure of difficult conversations, interpret the significance of what was said, identify their own unspoken assumptions and manage strong emotions. They then try to discover the assumptions of the other person and navigate to resolutions that empower all parties.
Delivering a difficult message, no matter how much tact the speaker brings, is going to sting, maybe do real damage. There is a much better way however, than avoiding the issue or burying it in a larger issue or letting it “leak out” sideways. Even when the difficulty is palpable, the conversation can be less stressful and more productive when some critical steps are taken.
What does it take to become masterful where it counts? First, separate impact from intention. If you focus only on impact, you will be unable to listen deeply to the other person who is acting from his specific intentions. The inability to separate keeps you in “blame” mode – unproductive at best and destructive to the relationship at worst.
Hold your view of what is happening as a hypothesis. Remember, in science class you learned that a hypothesis is just as useful when it is proven wrong. Stay open to another interpretation of “the facts.” (And don’t pretend you don’t have a hypothesis.)
Listen past the accusations for the underlying feelings – yours and his. These need to be addressed as much as “the facts” if you hope to arrive at a resolution that dignifies all. Try assuming the other person’s role. How does it look from there? Regardless of the organizational culture, feelings cannot be dispensed with. Trying to eliminate feelings leads to broken agreements and destructive work place environments.
Use the language of feelings when talking about them. Say “I feel….” and beware the word “that” creeping into your expression. When you say, “I feel that…” you have left the arena of feelings and moved, almost imperceptibly, to judgment. Stay aware! Feeling language includes such adjectives as disappointed, frustrated, overwhelmed, angry, depressed, exhilarated, enthusiastic, etc. A great resource for the language of feelings and needs can be found on the Center for Non-Violent Communication web site. Giving voice to your feelings models for the other party that emotion is a legitimate part of your conversation
Turn “my story” vs. “your story” into “our story” and give up blaming. Clearly each person in the situation has a point of view of what happened that they will put forth. When these are woven together into a wider, third perspective, more of the “truth” of what happened is available.
We are complicated and so are our intentions. Move from judgment to investigating all the contributing factors to the current situation – like avoiding, being unapproachable and role assumptions. This is a movement away from looking backward to instead, looking ahead.
Expect imperfection. Allow yourself and the other person to be human, therefore to make mistakes. Failure is only feedback! If what is driving you is a an intention to have a productive, meaningful conversation that leads to either a solution to a current problem or a better relationship if future, the effort will be rewarded with improved communication skills.
And if there is more to resolve than one conversation can contain, agree to come back. Sometimes 2 or 3 passes are required to unknot a complex situation. Reflection time between conversations can only be helpful, never harmful.
Finally, acknowledge yourself and the other person for your willingness to take part in a difficult conversation.