A difficult conversation is one that involves or evokes strong emotion.
Emotion is frequently involved when stability is displaced and the status quo is challenged. Emotion also rises to the surface when the subject at hand is of great importance to one or both parties.
There is no way to navigate a business, career or, indeed, life without having difficult conversations. The ability to resolve these artfully to move on from an obstacle is a key leadership skill.
“Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can. Speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person. It could be. Participate as if it matters. It does.”
– Susan Scott, ‘Fierce Conversations’
Personal conversations: a roadmap
It may be tempting to let things build until the top blows off. This is damaging in personal life, but can be fatal in professional communication.
When preparing for difficult conversations, it is important to have a roadmap to enable this conversation to be as calm, strategic and productive as possible.
This can be done via a 3-step process.
Signpost – explain what you want to discuss and why it matters
Roadmap – suggest a framework but remain curious
Build out – share evidence and observations that have made the conversation necessary; invite feedback; summarise outcomes periodically
Some conversation starters include:
“I have something I’d like to talk about that I think will help us work more positively and collaboratively together”
“I would love to get your perspective on [topic]. Do you have a few minutes to talk about it?
“I’d like to get your thoughts on this situation. How is [topic] going, from your point of view?
Honesty, openness and transparency are key to having personal conversations. If the flow of the dialogue does not go as expected, don’t be afraid to course-correct and refocus on another area of importance, or abort the conversation altogether and schedule a follow-up.
Group conversations: a structure
Whilst it may be more intimidating to deliver difficult or unwelcome messages to a wider audience, talking to a group provides more opportunity to carefully curate a message than a 1-2-1 conversation.
Key messages can be delivered uninterrupted and with the luxury of being able to explain plans, actions or events.
As it is not possible to observe, monitor and respond to any emotional reactions by the group, it is more important to anticipate possible responses and resistance and accommodate for this in the presentation.
A five-stage template may look as follows;
Clarity – it is important to be clear in what you are saying; counter-intuitively, it is even more important in difficult conversations
Context – why has this situation arisen? What has to be done about it?
Empathy – what reactions are you anticipating to what you have just told your audience? How will you respond to any counter-arguments?
Authenticity – none of what you say will matter if people do not feel your words are authentic. What steps can be taken to ensure your message is as genuine as possible?
Hope – what has changed for your listeners as a result of what you have said? What message do you want the team to take away?
“People won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”.
– Maya Angelou
The bottom line
Maya said it best.