Eight ways to make difficult conversations easier

These days managers are having to deliver a lot of bad news. So how can you make it more palatable?

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Stand up and be counted. Research shows that those with the courage to speak out are listened to, respected and rewarded. Dare to have the conversations that others shy away from.

Get ready. Prevent difficult conversations from becoming emotionally charged. Ask yourself 'What do I want to achieve here?' before you go into the conversation. The answer can act as a reminder to pull back from an argumentative stance.

Start with the facts. Sharing your feelings is a powerful way to express why something is important to you, but differentiate between facts ('the report has three errors in it'), assumptions ('it was clearly done at the last minute') and emotions ('I feel let down'). Facts are indisputable, so are easier to share first.

Describe actual behaviours. If delivering constructive criticism, avoid the infamous 'feedback sandwich' (good-bad-good). It comes across as disingenuous and dilutes the impact of your message.

Allow time for reflection. Give people the chance to respond, but don't force them: arrange to talk about it later.

Open up. Listen without showing any negative or defensive emotions (this will be difficult, but is essential). Show that you understand not only what they are saying but how they feel.

Collaborate. When asked about the turning point in the Cold War, Gorbachev replied that the crucial moment came at the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Reagan. This was the first time the leaders had entered into genuine dialogue, sharing their values, assumptions and aspirations. Their resulting trust and understanding began to reverse the nuclear arms race. Ask questions and work together without judgment.

Keep moving. If you can't agree on an issue, don't waste hours debating it. This conflict quicksand will get you nowhere. Park the issue and move on - you can always come back to it.

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