Top 10 Ways to Handle Difficult Conversations

The fallout from conversations gone wrong is not pretty: trust and intimacy suffer, while resentment and misunderstanding build. But it is possible to improve the way we handle our most challenging workplace conversations. Our working relationships need to energize, not sap us of strength. Consider the following:

1. Set an agenda.

Lay out the issue to be discussed, indicate that you want to hear the other person’s perspective and to speak your own, and that you’d like problem-solving to follow.

2. Listen first.

Until people feel heard and safe, they won’t have the mind-space to hear you.

3. Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity.

The authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most found that people typically spend only about 10% of a difficult conversation on inquiry and 90% on advocating a position. A better balance leads to a better outcome.

4. Be understanding

Strive to understand what people are thinking, feeling and needing, not just saying. Use reflective listening skills to repeat back what you hear to ensure your understanding.

5. Keep the focus

Focus on being aware of what is happening between the two of you, not on “winning” or being right.

6. Don’t ignore feelings.

They are often at the heart of every uncomfortable conversation—and they matter. Show empathy – even if you don’t agree.

7. Stay positive, supportive, curious and committed to problem-solving.

Your attitude will greatly influence what you say and how you’re received. Reframe negatives into opportunities for growth.

8. Notice when you become off-center.

Mentally regroup if your emotions are getting the better of you. Choose to return the focus to your co-worker or employee and your purpose.

9. Ask the right questions

Return to asking open-ended questions about the other’s point of view if the conversation becomes adversarial.

10. Be persistent

Stay persistent in your efforts to keep the conversation constructive and focused on facts – not opinions or judgments.

And remember that planning difficult conversations in advance will allow you to respond thoughtfully instead of knee-jerk react. Here’s to win/win outcomes!