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Tackling tough conversations

Handling hard conversations

Handling hard conversations

How many of us shy away from tough conversations?

Giving hard-to-hear feedback, sharing bad news, dealing with an unpleasantly emotive situation and tackling someone who easily becomes combative are a few we might rather avoid.

But what if we learned to handle them and suffer less from it hanging over us (if we don’t dare tackle it) or the looming dread during the build-up?

True story: After a Communication Skills workshop, a participant asked for help to suss out how to handle a nerve-wracking, and potentially hostile, conversation happening the next day..

This member of staff had to meet a Department Head some rungs above, who had established an over-complicated addition to an internal process. It needed re-simplifying to fall in line with the rest of the organisation. This staff member was worried about it turning into a ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ situation rather than an agreement.

Here’s how the nervous staff member tackled their concerns and the steps they took to plan their approach:

“How do I get the point across that they can’t have what they want? How do I tell them that?”

  • State the facts objectively

A clear statement was made, to introduce the topic (without ‘You’ or ‘I’ or pointing fingers or apologies) about the organisation’s fundamental obligations to minimise risk.

“How do I make it convincing to avoid a flare-up or argument?”

  • Outline your position matter-of-factly

Aware of sounding ‘process and policy’ it was explained that these processes existed to mitigate risk, simply stating that the current situation exposed the organisation to risk. Then the staff member explained their job role – helping to put in place, and working with, necessary safeguards agreed higher up in the organisation.

“How can I get them on side?”

  • Demonstrate or seek understanding of their agenda/needs

The staff member empathised by demonstrating an understanding of the fears the Department Head could have which led to this situation.

  • Offer an alternative solution

They then set out to reassure the Department Head what would happen in the worst case scenario – the same protocol executed for other teams.

“How can I get them to take me more seriously and so they don’t bounce this back up to my boss?”

  • Converse as someone with authority

When asked ‘What would you say and feel if you were equally Head of Department?’  The member of staff replied that they would feel and speak confidently with no change to the clear facts or what they wanted to get across. Only the idea of an upset senior member of staff was intimidating.

The outcome:

In 5 minutes with an independent ear, the outline for the above conversation was created.

The meeting went smoothly, with understanding and acceptance.

The member of staff let out a big sigh of relief!

How can we handle potentially intimidating conversations?

When we’re heading for a challenging conversation, sometimes our insecurities – justified or not  – can get the better of us. If we introduce some careful thinking we can succeed and take these on.

Planning steps: 

  1. Plan an outline conversation of succinct phases and statements.
  2. Remember what’s known already – we worry about the unknown and sometimes forget how much we know.
  3. Pull out all of the specifics and facts – and with a sense of order or logic (akin to the five points above).
  4. Use someone else as a sounding board to help remove any emotion – and for moral support.
  5. Remember why we’re doing it from the organisational angle. If it’s for the right reasons, there’s a good argument. It makes it seem less personal.

Rather than shying away from a difficult conversation it can be easier to take it on as a learning opportunity to up our skills and gain confidence. Every situation is different and one approach won’t tackle all scenarios. A clear plan, based on what we know already and perhaps by sounding out someone else, can often give us the confidence to proceed – with an air of confidence too.

It all sounds common sense but often common sense takes practice. Hiding from a tough conversation can leave us feeling more trapped. Are you?


Other articles you may like:

The importance of being negative

Hard to handle: The vain and selfish colleague

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*Image courtesy of franky242 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net