Difficult Conversations and Uncomfortable Topics

Making Tough Conversations Easier

There are certain conversations nobody likes: the ones in which we have to deliver bad news, discuss a sensitive or “political” subject, or talk about a project or meeting that’s gone wrong.

The very idea of these kinds of conversations make many shutter. Most see these interactions as “being the bad guy”, and can fill even the most fair and empathetic leaders pangs of guilt and trepidation.  For some, it’s easier in the short-run to avoid these potential conflicts altogether, but seasoned leaders know that the long-term repercussions of avoidance can cause serious damage to organizations, careers, and reputations.

Effective leaders want to manage difficult conversations responsibly. For some, this is easier said than done.

One resource to help navigate the murky waters of office conflict is the popular book, “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. It is a concise guide on how to talk about what matters most in uncomfortable situations.

If you find yourself on the brink of committing to a difficult conversation, here are a few items of note and consideration:

Prepare: Don’t walk blindly, or even casually, into a potentially volatile situation.  Know what needs to be accomplished in the conversation. Be prepared to discuss specifics about desired actions, behaviors and expectations. Anticipate bad reactions and your responses to them.

Deliver: Give bad news in the first sentence. Don’t sugar coat or beat around the bush.  Difficult conversations are best dealt with head-on.  You’ve prepared your approach, now respect your diligence with straightforward delivery.  Make sure your conversation revolves around behavior, and not the person in general.

Focus: It can sometimes easy to get carried away when delivering a well thought-out idea.  Make a conscious effort to keep this interaction a dialogue, and not a monologue. Notice reactions and emotions.  Stay on the alert for defensiveness (victim, “it’s not my fault”; aggressor, “it’s all someone else’s fault”; avoider, “there’s nothing else I can do”). Stay on track. Don’t get lost in tangents or tirades.

Listen: Once you’ve said your piece, and kept the conversation focused and on track, stop and listen. Pay attention to what is being said and what is not being said. Notice body language and tone of voice. Paraphrase what you’ve heard back to the other person to both express your interest in their thoughts as well as ensuring your own understanding of what was said.

Document: An undocumented work discussion may as well have happened at the water cooler. If you’re going through the trouble of addressing a serious issue, document what was said and why, and explain plainly and with appropriate detail what was agreed to, committed to, and timetables involved. Schedule follow-ups and check-ins as necessary.

Overcoming Conflict

Tips for reducing conflict are grounded in conversations that are transparent, respectful, open-minded, and with clarity about individual commitments for the sake of shared goals. Trust is built by making and keeping commitments.


Learn How to Build Trust!

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