There is a lot to be said for engaging in difficult conversations, but how can you best prepare for one? Difficult conversations can revolve around miscommunication or not realizing how comments are being heard or interpreted, for example. Not only is it uncomfortable to endure such situations, it is also hard to figure out what to do to make things better.
Someone I worked with was involved in a small group that she was initially excited about. Over the course of a few meetings, one of the leaders made random comments that made her feel disrespected and called out in front of the group. She was very upset since she considered the leader a friend, yet the comments and experience she faced led her to withdraw from the conversation and consider quitting her involvement. Initially, she felt the risk of talking it over with the leader was too great.
Rather than avoiding a person/group or holding in the frustrations and miscommunication, here are some ideas to help you prepare for a difficult conversation with the goal in mind of mutual respect and honest communication.
- Sort it out – Take some time to figure out what you are experiencing: feelings, thoughts, assumptions, the whole gamut. Talk through the emotions and the circumstances with a coach, or trusted advisor so you can feel heard and move through the emotional charge about the situation. Journaling is another helpful tool to overcome the upset as you decide how to handle it.
- Be curious – It is human nature to interpret the meaning and or make assumptions about why things happen a certain way. When you feel like something is “not quite right” in a situation, get curious about what is going on rather than jumping to conclusions or reacting in an angry, blaming, or overly emotional way. Instead of attaching a story or meaning, you made up, get curious about what is going on.
- Communicate directly – Come up with curiosity questions to specifically ask the person for more information. Something like, “You said, ‘share what was said.’ I am curious, what made you make those comments? Can you tell me more about what you meant by that?” Chances are good that they did not realize you were upset and possibly did not intend to discredit or offend you. That does not excuse the impact, but right now you are gathering information, seeking to understand their point of view. When you approach this conversation with curiosity rather than anger or blame, this can be a learning experience for both people involved. Listen to their perspective with openness and acknowledge that you heard their point of view. Thank them for sharing it.
- Ask – at this point, ask the person if they mind you sharing how the comments or incident made you feel. Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. “I felt disrespected, I felt embarrassed, “I thought…,” “I wondered…” Because you have taken time to prepare for the conversation ahead of time by processing your feelings, talking things through with a coach, and practicing; this part of the conversation should now be clear, specific, and unemotional.
- Listen – Provide the opening to receive feedback about how you are being perceived. No one is perfect and communication goes both ways. Sometimes a response you may receive is that “it was just a joke.” Most jokes have at least some basis in truth, so ask again, “what is it about the way I communicate, or interact that may have led you to say this, or believe that about me?” This is an opportunity to learn about how your words or actions are coming across too. Listen to understand rather than react with defensiveness.
- Learn – This honest two-way communication can create an opportunity for both people to learn. Learning can include understanding someone else’s perspective and being more aware of our own thoughts, comments, or assumptions. Learning how to have difficult conversations and realizing that you have the courage to do so, builds confidence too.
- Align – Ideally, both parties have felt heard at this point of the process so there is an opportunity to decide together how to move forward. In the case of the earlier example of the person in the small group, she decided to bring it up and the two of them had a very authentic conversation. They agreed on specific actions to further their working relationship and that of the group. The first person recommitted to her involvement with the group and had more confidence in sharing her thoughts at the moment rather than allowing assumptions or miscommunication to grow. Often, by discussing directly rather than harboring unexpressed thoughts, there is a stronger connection formed by both people listening with respect and curiosity to each other.
Communication is a vital part of business and with that comes opportunities for misunderstanding. The best leaders make the effort to hold difficult conversations to overcome obstacles and maximize collaboration.
I help leaders improve cohesion, collaboration, and connection within companies, organizations, and communities.