““Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” ― Socrates
In the world of work having difficult conversations, whether it is with your boss, a co-worker or a customer, are an inevitable part of management. How should you prepare for this kind of discussion? How do you find the right words in the moment? And, how can you manage the exchange so that it goes as smoothly as possible?
What the Experts Say
“We’ve all had bad experiences with these kinds of conversations in the past,” says Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate. Perhaps your boss lashed out at you during a heated discussion, or your direct report started to cry during a performance review; maybe your client hung up the phone on you. As a result, we tend to avoid them. But that’s not the right answer. After all, tough conversations “are not black swans,” says Jean-Francois Manzoni, professor of human resources and organisational development at INSEAD. The key is to learn how to handle them in a way that produces “a better outcome: less pain for you, and less pain for the person you’re talking to,” he says. Here’s how to get what you need from these hard conversations — while also keeping your relationships intact.
Change your mindset
If you’re gearing up for a conversation you’ve labelled “difficult,” you’re more likely to feel nervous and upset about it beforehand. Instead, try “framing it in a positive, less binary” way, suggests Manzoni. For instance, you’re not giving negative performance feedback; you’re having a constructive conversation about development. You’re not telling your boss: no; you’re offering up an alternate solution. “A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as a just a normal conversation,” says Weeks.
“The more calm and centred you are, the better you are at handling difficult conversations,” says Manzoni. He recommends: “taking regular breaks” throughout the day to practice “mindful breathing.” This helps you “refocus” and “gives you the ability to absorb any blows” that come your way. This technique also works well in the moment. If, for example, a colleague comes to you with an issue that might lead to a hard conversation, excuse yourself —get a cup of coffee or take a brief stroll around the office — and collect your thoughts.
Plan but don’t script
It can help to plan what you want to say by jotting down notes and key points before your conversation. Drafting a script, however, is a waste of time. “It’s very unlikely that it will go according to your plan,” says Weeks. Your counterpart doesn’t know “his lines,” so when he “goes off script, you have no forward motion” and the exchange “becomes weirdly artificial.” Your strategy for the conversation should be “flexible” and contain “a repertoire of possible responses,” says Weeks. Your language should be “simple, clear, direct, and neutral,” she adds.
MY HELPFUL TIP: Rather, I use a technique I picked up as part of a retreat. It is called “Pause, Reflect, Act”.
When I find myself in a stressful situation or in a discussion at home or at work, there comes a point where you get caught up in the moment, diving into the words and not recognising the context and flow. That is when this technique comes into its own. I say the words in my head. You might have them written down on a piece of paper. You might even count the fingers on your hand. Whatever works for you.
That split second pause before you answer is just enough to give yourself a moment to reflect on “am I reacting to the way someone is saying something. AKA, I am feeling threatened / rejected / lost / alone / whatever” or what is it I want to communicate.
Do I remember to do this all the time? No. Does it help when I do? Absolutely. Is it something I have shared at work and at home? Yes. And it has helped.
This technique, along with regular mindfulness practice has certainly helped me to create a more integrated life. I know I still have many “life boxes that I manage”, but they are far fewer than I had before and I certainly feel that life is a road easier to travel.
I leave you with the following quote.
“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” [Address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 November 2004]” ― Desmond Tutu