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This Could Be Hard to Say

Imagine that it’s Monday morning and you’re just getting started with your day when your boss emails you and says, “Come by my office before you go to lunch.” Later that day, your child’s teacher catches you as you pick her up and asks you to schedule an after-school conference as soon as possible. Then you check your phone and see this text from your spouse, “We need to talk. Tonight.”

Now what? Sounds like some difficult conversations may be on your schedule.

Or what about this? You know you need to talk to a team member who isn’t keeping their commitments. Your boss tells you that you must talk with one of your team members about a personal hygiene issue. You have serious concerns about the person your teenage child is dating.

Those are just a few examples of difficult conversations we might need to have. The choice isn’t whether to have them or not but whether we’re going to handle them well, handle them poorly, or try to avoid them. While avoidance only increases the difficulty, that’s the choice most people take.

According to a Vital Smarts survey 56% of people stay silent about a difficult issue for up to a year without addressing it. 41% keep silent for up to 4 years. The same survey found that 70% of workers are currently facing a difficult conversation with a boss, coworker or direct report.

So, what do you do? Once you conclude that a particular difficult conversation is necessary, how can you be sure you handle it well? Here are four strategies to help.

Be clear and compassionate. We’re talking about how to communicate well which almost always requires some level of dialogue. Dialogue is the sharing of information between two people, both having thoughts, feelings, and experiences to share. State your position with as much clarity as possible but always remember you are talking with a person. The principle of the Golden Rule is always a great guide. Don’t let your difficult conversation descend into something like road rage where the other person becomes an object.

Confront the right issue. We usually start with the most painful or immediate issue, which may not be the most important one. Before speaking up, you should stop and ask, “What do I really want here? Do I want to win an argument, or do I want to solve a problem? If the latter, what problem do I want to solve?” Being crystal clear on your goal for the conversation increases the chance it will be successful for you and the other person.

Be sure you’re listening to understand rather than simply to respond. This is a well-known principle but one where most people have lots of room for improvement. Real conversations are dialogue, not monologue.

Look in the mirror. Improve your awareness of how you are, or are not, communicating effectively. Ask for feedback from someone you trust and who will be honest with you. Or better yet, develop a plan for regular feedback.

Reality check. I suspect you already know some version of each of these tips and probably a few more. But conversations are still difficult. There’s a big difference between knowing how to do something and being good at it. For example, I know how to play the guitar. You hold it in the right position, put your fingers on the strings and strum. That’s it, right? But I can’t play the guitar at all. That will take practice, and lots of it. It’s the same with difficult conversations. If you’re going to master them, you will have to practice. In fact, you’ll probably have to practice a lot on the situations you find most challenging.

What are your strategies for success with difficult conversations?

For help with improving your leadership and your conversational style, I offer Communication Lab where you’ll learn proven methods for handling difficult conversations well, along with an opportunity to observe others and put your own skills into practice in real conversations.

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