The Secret to Success With a Difficult Conversation

Most of us need to have difficult conversations from time to time:

  • Bill’s not meeting his sales targets.
  • Susan’s manner of speaking comes across as insensitive and abrasive.
  • Jason takes long lunch breaks and then plays solitaire on his computer all afternoon.

Whatever the specifics, something isn’t right and it won’t magically get better by itself. You need to address the situation.

Who enjoys having these conversations? Many of us approach them with dread and anxiety. We avoid them, and tell ourselves that raising the subject will only make matters worse. Or we ask someone else to address it, thinking they’ll be more skillful or neutral (just as long as I don’t have to do it).  Or we stumble into the conversation at the worst possible time, only to get the exact result we feared.

Having these conversations can go more smoothly than you might think. The secret  to success is preparation.

Success doesn’t mean you’ll hug and sing Kumbaya when the conversation is done. Success means you will conduct yourself in the way you intend. You will get your point across clearly and listen to the other person. You’ll feel proud of yourself, knowing you did the best you could. That’s the real litmus test. And preparation is key to that kind of success.

60% of success is getting your thinking clear up front. Here are some things that will help:

Clarify the point of the conversation:  In Crucial Confrontations, the authors point out that difficult conversations are rarely simple. It’s important to determine precisely what you want to address.

They have a great formula:

The first time an issue arises, focus on Content (C). What happened?

If it continues and you need to address it again, focus on Pattern (P). What has been happening over time? 

If that doesn’t resolve the problem and you need to address it yet again, focus on Relationship (R). What is this doing to us?  How is it impacting our relationship? How is affecting the other person’s relationship to their team, organization?

Picking the right topic is one way to make sure you don't experience "groundhog day" with the same conversation playing out over and over. It’s easy to remember with the acronym CPR.

Ask yourself, “What do I want? What do I not want?”  Do you want to win?  Get the other person to do what you want them to do?  Feel that you’ve been heard and respected?  Think through what you want to avoid happening also.

As you prepare, consider whether you want to have the conversation at all. Perhaps you had a bad experience with someone you will never interact with again. Is it worth engaging in this difficult conversation?  Or maybe the cost of speaking up will be greater than the cost of keeping quiet.

Ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable person behave this way?”  This allows you to put yourself in the other person’s and consider legitimate reasons for their behavior.

Explore your own assumptions about the conversation. Pay attention to why you expect this conversation to be difficult and what evidence you have that this is going to happen. When we expect a conversation will be difficult, we start off tense, defensive or angry. By showing up with curiosity, openness and modest expectations, the emotional “cloud” often dissipates.

 30% of success is being aware of emotions in advance.

Be aware of your own triggers and “hot buttons.” Plan in advance what you will do if you are triggered.  The conversation will not go well if you lose your cool.  It’s also really helpful to identify what triggers the other person and develop a plan for dealing with that.

Once you’ve prepared, what you have to say will practically roll off your tongue. That said it helps to practice the first minute or so of the conversation.  The first minute is the best predictor of how well the rest will go, so it’s the most important thing to practice.

Few people enjoy having difficult conversations. With preparation and practice you can experience these as stepping-stones toward positive relationships and confidence that you can handle anything.

Note: Percentages are approximate and based only on my experience.