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Difficult Conversations – Do your homework

9 years ago

1236 words

 Preparing for a difficult conversation

It takes years to construct a bridge but it can be brought down in minute.

Very few people enjoy engaging someone else in a difficult conversation; even fewer relish the prospect of being called into one. A primary reason is that our experiences in these situations have often been very painful. For that reason, most people tend to avoid difficult conversations at all costs. The result is that unresolved issues fester because no one is willing to deal with them. These ‘steps’ are intended to assist your thinking in knowing when and how to engage a difficult conversation and get the best possible outcome.

Step 1 – Always do some self work first

  • The chance of a good outcome increases significantly when adequate reflection and thought goes into what to say and how to say it.

  • Identify and manage (not dismiss or ignore) your own emotions first. Be aware of what you are feeling. Do some careful searching of your motivations for the conversation. In particular be aware of your emotional hooks in the situation and potentially with the person.

  • Use the OC process. Objectification and Complexification.

    • Objectifying – Step back and try to get a clear handle on the issues. Can you describe clearly and concisely the behaviour which is causing the problem? Can you articulate the impact this behaviour has on you, the Corps, the team? Be aware of any policies or protocols which have a bearing on this situation. Be aware of your need for consistency in how you deal with the situation. Do you have accurate information? Do you have all the information?

    • Complexifying – “there is a simple answer to every problem and it is almost always wrong”. Consider the situation from your perspective and as clearly as you can from the other’s perspective – examine your own needs, interests and values and those of the other person. Consider the options available to you. Adopt a mindset of inquiry and exploration.
  • Think about the role relationship which is the basis for the conversation. Is this an employer – employee conversation? Is it a captain – soldier conversation? Is this an accountability discussion between two individuals who have agreed to be accountable to each other? Is it an annual review? Supervision or mentoring? Being clear on the role you have, the role of the other person and the authority you have to conduct the conversation is important in how the conversation is planned and conducted.

  • Work out your objective for the conversation. What is your desired outcome? What would you like the person to agree to do? What support for this could you offer? What obstacles might need to be overcome? What time-frame is appropriate? What do you perceive as the desired outcome of the other person? How will you know if you both have succeeded?

  • Write some notes and sleep on it

Step 2 – Plan the meeting

  • Know your conflict style. Don’t avoid or delay a needed meeting, don’t engage an unnecessary meeting

  • Timing: Set up the meeting a day ahead of time, don’t drop it on someone without warning. You need time and they need time to prepare.“Pat, I would like to talk with you about your response at the meeting this morning when Chris asked about X situation. Let’s grab a cup of coffee tomorrow morning at 10 and talk it through” Or: “Karen, I want to go over some of the issues with volunteer staff at the thrift shop and some concerns that I have around privacy and confidentiality. Can we meet tomorrow morning at 11.00am to work on these together?” 

    On the day of the meeting if possible always connect in a warm way somewhere in the morning. If possible always connect somewhere later in the day following a meeting to normalise the relationship.

  • Location: Calling people into your office may not be the wisest strategy. Sitting in your space, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power heavily to your side. Even simple body language, such as leaning forward toward the person rather than leaning back on your chair, can carry a subtle message of your positive intentions. Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other, or around a neutral table without your personal desk as a barrier. Don’t exclude the local coffee shop.
  • Always plan for a one to one private conversation unless there is a need for the person to have a support person. Never have a difficult conversation in front of other people. If one starts, close it down and move it to a private space.


Step 3 – Actively Lead the meeting

  • It is not easy to engage a robust conversation. Know how you will begin. While rehearsing is not particularly helpful neither is going in with no idea how you will start.

  • Don’t engage small talk – get straight to the point.

    Janet, I have asked you in because I have a concern about the way you speak to Claire. On two occasions now I have heard you make comments directly to her which are dismissive of her as a person. ….This has an impact on me as team leader, I know it hurts Claire, and other staff also have been present when your comments were made. Your behaviour would appear to me to be clearly outside the type of working environment we are committed to here. Help me understand why this happens and what we are going to do to create better relationships…?”

  • Be clear and considerate. One without the other will either be harsh and destructive or will get you nowhere at the end.

  • Think in “I” language not “You” language

    You” language
    (Usually ineffective)

    I” language
    (Usually more effective)

    You are constantly asking for exceptions when it comes to completing required documents.

    You are continually late and you come unprepared for our team meetings.

    I see the documentation procedures that I need in place being sidestepped, and I want to explore with you how to work out a practical way that gets these complete.


    I have noticed that our meetings aren’t as effective as they could be and I want to discuss how we can improve them. What is important to me is that you are able to contribute meaningfully and we get the benefit of your involvement.

  • Be aware of the role and relational base you are working from in the conversation. Use it with consistency and care.

  • Manage your anxiety and emotions well, facilitate the other’s emotions

    • Acknowledge emotions don’t ignore them e.g. anger, tears, fear, anxiety

    • Offer the person a moment to collect themselves e.g. a tissue, glass of water

    • Stay on task – the emotion is not the problem

    • If emotions look like getting out of control (yours or theirs), immediately and respectfully close the meeting and reconvene later. Relationships are too important to destroy with outbursts of hurtful behaviour which will be regretted later.

  • Be comfortable with silence. Silence can have a positive effect. It allows the message to be heard and especially for introverts allows time for thinking.

  • Listen: You may well learn something new and important.

  • Facilitate working to an agreed outcome. It is best if the outcome is based on an objective value you both agree with. If you need to insist on your preferred outcome as the person in authority, ask them if they are willing to accept this. 

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