How to have a difficult conversation

How to have a difficult conversation

It seems that all my blog posts recently have the title ‘How to…’. Sorry to be predictable with this one, but ‘how to have a difficult conversation’ really is the perfect title for this post.

So let’s get started.

At some point in our lives, we need to have a difficult conversation with someone. Why do we label these conversations as ‘difficult’? Basically, because of the emotional change they contain. And because of that emotional charge, a ‘difficult conversation is often a conversation we avoid.

The inspiration for this post comes from a video by Mel Robbins, a video of the same title. I highly recommend you check out Mel’s YouTube channel, it’s a treasury trove of useful tips for a successful professional and personal life.

Mel kicks off her video with an amazing statistic – 67% of managers are uncomfortable having a tough conversation with members of their team. And the reason they’re uncomfortable is that haven’t been shown how to successfully separate emotions from the matter to be discussed.

Mel recommends four steps to move through a difficult conversation smoothly and achieve a constructive outcome.

Step 1: Acknowledge some responsibility for the ‘less than ideal’ situation.

This might be as simple as recognizing (verbally) that you have avoided having the conversation. This alone goes some way to diffusing the other person’s negative emotions. And indeed, if you have contributed to the issue in some way, make sure you communicate this. In a tough conversation, we want to do all we can to diffuse negative emotions to clear the way for a dialogue.

Step 2: Define the outcome

This is SO important. The reason you’re taking time to have this conversation is because it matters and you want to get to a better place with the other person. So state the outcome you want in terms of, for example, how it’s going to improve the relationship between you. Or perhaps you need to give some feedback on how the other person can improve in their work. If they are able to improve, that is beneficial to them so communicate that.

Defining the desired outcome at the beginning of the conversation really helps to stabilise emotions in both of you. It also acts as a guide for the details of the conversation.

Step 3: Listen and validate

Once you’ve introduced the topic and any objective supporting evidence, listen closely and validate what the other person is saying. This might go something like ‘that must have been very frustrating/difficult’ etc. Or ‘yes, I hear /understand what you’re saying’. Validating may seem counter-intuitive and it doesn’t have to mean that you agree, but it’s amazing how much this technique reduces defensiveness in the other person.

Step 4: Restate the outcome

It’s very useful to keep restating the outcome, particularly if negative emotions start to surface and threaten calm discussion. This will bring you both back to a win-win attitude.

When it comes to effective communication skills, having a proven methodology to use in a difficult conversation is extremely useful. I’ve taught the above to many of my clients and I always get very positive feedback

Watch the video How to have a Difficult Conversation and be prepared for your next tough conversation.

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