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  • Mark Shaw

What is Best Practice when it comes to the Difficult Conversation?

Handling a difficult conversation can be a challenge for even the most confident among us. It requires skill, self-control and empathy. It really is the sort of situation that pays to be prepared for. From our TRP 10,000™ study, we know that three quarters of members’ value face-to-face communication whether that’s from the receptionists or fitness staff, therefore communicating to them effectively is extremely important. To read in more detail click here.

Just as important are the conversations we have with our colleagues and team members. These can often feel difficult and threatening when discussing performance issues.

Here are some tips to guide you on the best way to approach difficult conversations:

1. What and Why

Be clear about the issue. To prepare for the conversation, you need to ask yourself some important questions:

  • What exactly is the behaviour that is causing the problem?

  • What is the impact that the behaviour is having on you, the team or the organization?

  • What is your purpose for having the conversation?

  • What do you hope to accomplish?

  • What would be an ideal outcome?

  • Clarify what you want to discuss so you can articulate the issue in two or three concise statements, if not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation which will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.

  • An important element in this stage is to recognise your unconscious contribution to the situation at hand. Before going into the conversation, ask yourself some questions:

  • What assumptions are you making about this person’s intentions? You may feel intimidated, belittled, ignored, disrespected, or marginalized, but be cautious about assuming that this was the speaker’s intention. Impact does not necessarily equal intent.

  • Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? What personal history is being triggered? See it as an opportunity for growth. When you’re able to resolve conflict, it builds trust both in yourself and trust within the relationship.

  • How is your attitude toward the conversation influencing your perception of it? If you think this is going to be horribly difficult, it probably will be. If you truly believe that whatever happens, some good will come of it, that will likely be the case. Try to adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.

  • Once you have worked through the less obvious factors, bring yourself back to some practical tangibles:

  • Know your objective. What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What are the non-negotiables? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Don’t end without clearly expressed action items.

2. When and Where

When you feel ready, approach the person in a clear, confident way.

  • Choose the right place to have the conversation. Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own turf, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other without the desk as a barrier. Don’t exclude the coffee shop!

  • Know how to begin. Some people put off having the conversation because they don’t know how to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach.

  • “John, I would like to talk with you about what happened at the meeting this morning when Bob asked about the missed deadline. Let’s grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning to chat.”

  • Or: “Linda, I want to go over some of the issues with XYZ customer and some concerns that I have. Let’s meet tomorrow morning to problem-solve.”

  • Being upfront is the authentic and respectful approach. You don’t want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the “chat.”

3. How

  • Adopt a mindset of inquiry. Pretend you don’t know anything (you really don’t), and try to learn as much as possible about the other person and their point of view.

  • Let the other person talk until they are finished. Don’t interrupt except to acknowledge. Whatever you hear, don’t take it personally. It’s not really about you. Try to learn as much as you can in this phase of the conversation. You’ll get your turn, but don’t rush things.

  • Try to understand the other person so well you can make their argument for them…then do it. Explain back to them what you think they are really going for. This is where empathy comes in to play, put your own ego aside and step inside the mind of the other person, understand their feelings and allow yourself the fluidity to shift perspective.

  • When you sense that the other person has expressed themselves completely, it’s your turn to speak. What can you see from your perspective that they have missed? Help clarify your position without minimizing the other person’s. For example:

  • “From what you’ve told me, I can see how you came to the conclusion that I’m not a team player. And I think I am. When I introduce problems with a project, I’m thinking about its long-term success. I don’t mean to be a critic, though perhaps I sound like one. Maybe we can talk about how to address these issues so that my intention is clear.”

  • Always try to get more than one possible option for resolution on the table. Reality test the options. Use “What if…” questions to help ensure that the proposed solutions are practical and will work in reality.

  • Be comfortable with silence. There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don’t rush to fill it with words. Know that everyone is different. If you are an extrovert, you’re likely uncomfortable with silence, as you’re used to thinking while you’re speaking. Whereas introverts want to think before they speak.

  • Know that mediation is a complex process involving high-level skill. Mediators use careful language to ensure that they do not add to highly sensitive situations. If you do not feel confident that you can successfully resolve the issues, call someone who can help you or advise you on where to get help to resolve your conflict.


So while difficult conversations present a challenge they also present an opportunity to develop, build relationships and improve communication and performance. Don’t be put off by the fear and anxiety as you will miss out on making great progress.

At some stage in our career we will all be confronted with the need to have a difficult conversation.  You know the type… the type that makes your stomach lurch and has you wanting to do everything but have that conversation.  It could be dealing with a customer complaint, providing negative feedback to a team member or letting someone know that their employment has been terminated.

Whatever the nature of the conversation is, they all involve an element of risk.  They are often scary and rarely easy but always necessary.  Our innate biological instinct to avoid pain and discomfort along with the fast paced, high pressure of our work, often have us avoiding these types of conversations.

Unfortunately issues that are left unaddressed can potentially worsen, destroy trust, undermine teamwork, damage engagement and limit the likelihood of a successful outcome for all. 

Your reputation with your team is also on the line.

If issues are left to fester, your team will start to question your effectiveness and your commitment to tackle the difficult issues.  Courageous conversations provide you with a clear pathway to building relationships, growing your influence and allows you to set clear expectations and standards with your team. 

Even writing about this topic brings up for me old feelings of anxiety and my own personal torture that comes from putting something off, that I know has to be done.  I was a master at telling myself that the problem would sort it self out with time or create more urgent and pressing matters to attend to rather than addressing the challenging conversations as they arose. 

And you guessed it, burying my head in the sand only magnified the problem and impacted my business results.  Difficult conversations are scary because the stakes are high, but the cost associated with ignoring the problem is often even higher.

Now is the time to stop procrastinating and make the conversation happen. 

The following keys will help guide you to achieving an optimal result.

1.  Manage your emotions.  Difficult conversations can often be emotionally charged.  By remaining calm and in control of your emotional energy you will set the tone for the meeting. Emotions are highly contagious.  Your power lies in your ability to remain grounded and focused on the outcome.  Don’t let others poor behaviour be an excuse for yours.

2.  Seek a common goal. Take the time at the beginning of the conversation to clarify the higher common purpose or goal.  Very often we are striving for the same goal but conflict arises when we differ in the approach, standards or expectations.  By clarifying that you are actually seeking the same common goal will diffuse some of the tension right from the outset. 

3.  Separate story from fact. The story is often super charged with emotion.  Clarify your opinion while respecting the others point of view.   Address behaviours not the person.  Avoid pointing fingers, blaming or making vague accusations.

4.  Listen to understand.  Avoid the temptation to do all the talking and race straight to solution mode.  Resist making assumptions and come from a place of genuine curiosity and a desire to understand the others point of view.  Step into their shoes for a moment to see the situation from their perspective.  Listen and acknowledge where they are coming from before sharing your views on the situation.  As Stephen Covey says in his book 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People – seek to understand before seeking to be understood.

5.  Be future focused.  Stay focused on a working towards an agreeable outcome and what needs to change or improve.  Set clear expectations and document agreements on what each party commits to do. 

6.  Speak powerfully. The way you convey your message is important.  Speak with confidence and certainty.  Neuroscience has proven that powerful, positive language has a profound impact on our own and others behaviours and outcomes.  If you don’t yet feel confident…. act as if you are and over time and with practice you will be!  For more about building confidence check this out.

7.  Prepare and practice.  Difficult conversations are just that… difficult.  They require practice.  They do get easier and you will become more effective with practice.   Ensure you take the time to prepare, getting clear on the outcome you wish to achieve and setting yourself up for success with a sense of calm and certainty.

Whatever your profession, position or level of experience… it is inevitable that you will come across the need to have difficult conversation that requires you to be courageous, step outside your comfort zone and take a risk to address the issue. Keep in mind what is at stake. If you stay silent and tiptoe around the issue your reputation, team moral, trust, relationships and ultimately organisational results are on the line.

By taking action and addressing issues as they come up you will build your influence, your impact and your career success…. one conversation at a time.  So be bold, listen bravely and believe that you can. 

Even though communication is the lifeblood of any organization, it’s difficult to find a company that doesn’t have its breakdowns in this area. Part of a leader’s job is to keep these to a minimum and handle effectively.

In reality, most people avoid conflicts and the confrontations required to deal with them not because they lack the will, but because they lack courage to overcome that fear of “what if” and the potential of something unproductive.

No one is immune to workplace tensions- It is inevitable that you will have some challenging conversations with colleagues or customers.

When we need to have a difficult conversation with someone—we always have that gut feeling of resistance. Fear and contemplation drowns that inner voice and we put the conversation off.

Meanwhile the other person continues to provide substandard performance, miss deadlines, engage in interpersonal conflicts and contributes to a toxic culture.

The consequence of not having that uncomfortable conversation is costly.

A  recent study by Accenture revealing that, even in this challenging economic climate, 35 percent of employees leave their jobs voluntarily because of internal politics and conflict.

Judith E Glaser in her recent book about Conversational Intelligence says that, “…confronting another person with difficult conversations brings up potentially volatile emotions, so we move with caution and keep our real feelings close to our chest. In the most extreme cases, when we are faced with situations that stir up highly charged emotional content, most of the tension and drama is actually taking place in our own minds.

 Here are four ways to reach a constructive outcome, no matter how tough things can get:

1.  Focus on Building Trust:

Every difficult conversation is an opportunity to improve the circle of trust. Assumptions and doubts block the development of trust. The key to trust is understanding the imperfections of every person. To trust is to create a safe space for the other person to be who they are.

As a leader you need to help open the individual’s mind to see solutions to problems, to get “out of the self- imposed limitation” and perceive solutions.

2. Demonstrate Empathy:

A leader seeks first to understand than to be understood. Sincere and selfless way. Showing empathy and understanding, will lead to the development of mutual trust allowing individuals to open up their mind and heart and derive all the possible benefits to help move them towards their a better relationship.

3. Listen well: 

Not only to what the person is saying but what he/she is feeling. To create clarity and to let people know you’re genuinely listening, validate what they’re feeling — and ask them to do the same.

In fact, take a few moments to listen to their side of the story first before sharing yours, and always demonstrate you are genuinely interested in hearing their story. Difficult conversations are emotional and you need to get a good appreciation of the underlying issues that drive the emotions.

4. Co-Create Solutions:

Work together on a common solution to the conflict you both facing. This is a really great opportunity to collaborate and open up to new possibilities. With Co-Creating, each person is accountable to pull their weight into a constructive solution that can bring a win- win to both parties.

What about you? How do you handle difficult conversations with your colleagues or other relationships? if you like to watch a great interview about having healthy conversations, check the link below

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