How to have difficult conversations

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How to have difficult


During the performance and development process it may be necessary for team leaders to have difficult conversations with team members. A difficult conversation is anything you find hard to talk about and can involve a range of factors.

Typically a difficult conversation will involve:

  • dealing with problematic behaviours or actions

  • dealing with a sensitive issue.

The goal of a difficult conversation would be to positively resolve the issue at hand whilst improving communication and the relationship of the two parties involved.
There are three main perspectives1 which are formulated during a difficult conversation. These are the:

  1. What happened?” perspective

It is important to take into account that assumptions are often made in a difficult conversation. Understanding each of these assumptions is essential to improve our ability to handle difficult conversations well. Consider the assumption statements below and reflect:

Am I going into the conversation with one of these assumptions? If so, how will this impact on my behaviour?

Realise that we do not know everything in the situation. Not assuming that we know the whole truth frees us to shift our focus from proving we are right to understanding perceptions, interpretations and values on both sides.

  • The intention assumption

The error that we make is usually simple but profound; we assume we know the intentions of others.This is not the case, as intentions, like so much else in difficult conversations are complex. Keep in mind that people can act with mixed intentions, good intentions, bad intentions or no intention at all.

This is one of the most difficult conversations because the focus is on who is to blame for the situation. Talking about fault is similar to talking about truth – it produces disagreement, denial and little learning. It distracts us from exploring why things went wrong and how we might correct them as we move forward.

  1. Feelings perspective

Difficult conversations are not just about what happened; they also involve emotion. Every difficult conversation asks and answers questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid? Are they appropriate? Strong feelings are bound to arise and it is important to think about how to handle them when they do.

In the presence of strong feelings, many of us work hard to stay rational. Bringing up feelings can also be scary or uncomfortable and can make us feel vulnerable. Whilst some people prefer to keep emotion completely out of difficult conversations, acknowledging, accepting and being aware that emotions exist within difficult conversations aids in understanding a situation.

  1. Identity perspective

The identity perspective is the way we interpret what this situation means to us. Of the three perspectives it is the most subtle and the most challenging. The challenge lies in the possibility that this may cause conflict with our self image. The result may be a loss of confidence, concentration or forgetting what we wanted to say.

Once we have grounding in the identity perspective it offers significant leverage in managing anxiety and improving skills in the other two perspectives. If we are grounded and aware of our identity it can aid us in maintaining strength in the situation.

A pathway through difficult conversation

Learning to operate successfully across the different perspectives explained above can assist in dealing with difficult conversations. Although there are challenges in the situation that you have no control over, you are in control of changing the way you respond to each of these challenges.

The majority of the work in any difficult conversation is the work you do on yourself. No matter how well the pathway through the conversation begins, you’ll need to stay in charge of yourself, your purpose and your emotional energy. To prepare yourself for a difficult conversation you will need to do some reflection on the situation, the purpose of the conversation and whether it would be best for all concerned to have the conversation at all.

  1. Prepare by reflecting on the three perspectives:

  1. Sort out what happened:

  • Where do yours/their story come from (information, past experiences, rules)?

  • What impact has this situation had on them/you?

  • What might yours/their intentions have been?

  • What have you each contributed to the problem?

  1. Understand emotions:

  • Explore the emotions that you and they are experiencing.

  1. Ground your identity:

  • What’s at stake for you? What do you need to accept to be better grounded when approaching the conversation?

  1. Reflect on the purpose of the conversation and decide whether to raise the issue:

Shift your stance to support learning, sharing and problem solving.

  • What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?

  • Is this the best way to address the issue and achieve your purpose? If you don’t raise the issue, what can you do to help yourself let go?

  1. If you decide that having the conversation is the best way to resolve the issue:

  1. Begin the conversation on fair and equal ground

  • Describe the problem as the difference between your version and their version of the event. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion.

  • Share your purposes for the conversation.

  • Invite them to join you as a partner in sorting out the situation together.

  1. Explore their story and yours

  • Listen to understand their perspective on what happened. Ask questions. Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations. Paraphrase to see if you understand their perspective.

  • Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions and feelings.

  • Refocus to keep on track. From perceptions to truth, blame to contribution and accusations to feelings and so on.

  1. Problem solving

  • Take the lead in the conversation. Refocus, actively listen and establish the dynamic to keep the conversation on track.

  • Invent options that meet each side’s most important concerns and interests.

  • Keep in mind the standards of mutual caretaking, as relationships that always go one way rarely last.
  • Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward.

1 Stone, D., Patton,B. & Heen, S. “Difficult Conversations”.2000. Penguin Books. London.

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