Successfully Navigating “Difficult” Conversations
by Heather Hinrichs
Have you ever faced what you considered to be a difficult conversation? You know, times when you were giving critical feedback, asking for more money, time or resources, voicing a disagreement or confronting a friend, partner or colleague?
A leader’s ability to communicate effectively is crucial to navigating difficult conversations successfully. There are costs to conversations that are not well managed such as stress, poor decision making and low morale. There can also be true gains by resolving issues without blame, upset and misunderstanding. Whole new worlds of freedom, connection and possibility can open up through conversation.
Avoiding potentially difficult conversations can be just as damaging as handling them poorly, especially if it means not voicing a concern or giving feedback. Feedback is essential for learning and opens the possibility for course correction. A difficult conversation can raise awareness for the need to change and prompt improvements which otherwise were unlikely.
Think of the last difficult conversation you had. Ask yourself:
- What made it difficult?
- What was the context or mindset that you went into that conversation with?
- Were you aware of the context and was it an effective approach?
- Did you clarify what the other person’s intentions were or did you make an assumption about what they meant?
- Did you walk away feeling like you had had a productive conversation or was there some cost to the way it was handled?
How do you approach what you consider is a difficult conversation to ensure that the outcome is productive rather than destructive?
Reveal and shift context.
Spend some reflective time understanding what context or mindset you are bringing to the conversation. Are you approaching it with a context of “I am going to prove that I am right!” or “I just want to get this over with!”?
Then look to see if it is the most powerful context to be operating from. If there is some way to approach it that is more effective , trade up to a context that is in line with your intentions such as “I want to understand the situation more clearly” or “What would it allow for if we resolved this difference?”
Separate facts from conclusions.
Recognize the “evidence” you have that is fact and that which is a foregone conclusion masquerading as fact. When we go through this exercise in the Women Leading Change program it often produces the greatest “Aha” moments.
One of the reasons we may struggle with difficult conversations is that we often get caught up in who is right or wrong and we think that we are getting the “facts” straight. Unfortunately what really makes conversations difficult is that they tend to be based on differing perceptions and conclusions. They are also difficult because we have a lot of emotion tied into the outcome, and there are underlying influences such as what we think the outcome means about us and our self-image.
The default for many of us is to jump to conclusions about someone else’s intention unless it is made explicit. More often than not, people assume a negative intent in the absence of an explicitly expressed intent. Asking someone what their intention is can clarify a situation that once looked dire and turn it into an opportunity to forge alignment.
An effective step is to shift our conversation from trying to prove right from wrong and instead listening with curiosity and fascination to the other person, working to better understand their intentions, clarifying their message and seeing what the situation looks like from their perspective. By asking questions you may find that your assumptions were flawed and there is more alignment than you realized.
Scale the conversation up.
More often than not, each situation is a fractal of what is going on in the system or organization at a larger scale. Having a conversation to solve a personal situation won’t bring to light and address the underlying cultural issues of the organization that are causing the specific instance.
It is more effective to look at how the causes of your situation are impacting the organization, then get alignment that the impact is not desired and finally, gain agreement that it needs to change for the organization’s sake . You can address it once at the organizational level or you can deal with it a hundred times at your individual level – the choice is yours.