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How much do difficult conversations clog up your to-do list? Do you leave difficult conversations to the very last minute, secretly hoping they will go away? I’ll admit, I am guilty of doing this. And from the feedback I hear coming from organisations I would guess quite a lot of you are too. So, how can we deal with these conversations constructively and why is it that difficult conversations are, well, so difficult?

We’ve all been there. We need to speak to our boss about an issue with a customer, there is conflict on our team that needs addressing, there is a particular team member that isn’t quite pulling their weight, we are steeling ourselves for a sticky financial conversation with our parents…

Difficult conversations come in all shapes and sizes, the one constant running through them is that they need to be dealt with. The longer we leave them, the more they fester and can become bigger and bigger, turning toxic and creating a much larger issue. Moving forward constructively means tackling these conversations early and head-on.

As you might have guessed, difficult conversations are not easy. They make us feel awkward, uncomfortable, with that little fluttering of nerves in the stomach or a shortening of breath. These are common physiological reactions of the body going through fight or flight. Just as an approaching person wielding a knife and demanding money triggers us to either stand and fight or turn and run, so can the thought of having a difficult conversation trigger an emotional response, albeit perhaps a little less dramatic. Our brains react under threat and often that reaction leaves us feeling anxious, stressed, and exhausted – not feelings that we welcome with open arms. No wonder we don’t like having difficult conversations if they are going to stress and exhaust us. So, now that we’ve established their importance, what are some tips that will help ease the pain of difficult conversations?

Be aware of your emotions
Our brains are hardwired to emotions, it is easy to fall into and get swallowed up by them. The fight or flight reaction can be overwhelming and shut down our rational thinking. We get carried away on an emotional roller coaster, no longer thinking logically. In the list of difficult conversations above, which one evokes the most emotions in you? Perhaps it’s having a difficult financial conversation with your parents? The closer and more personal the issue is, the more likely we are to feel emotion.
What you can do:

  • Do some research – get some facts and figures ready so you can refer to them in the conversation.
  • Plan the conversation – think it over in your head and come up with a couple of possible scenarios of where the conversation might go so you are ready ahead of time.
  • Remember to breath – your mind in rational mode needs oxygen, take a breath and keep the logical thinking flowing.

Don’t get caught in the detail
The more we get caught up in the detail the more likely we are to lose sight of the purpose – why are we having this conversation in the first place? Think of the scenario of the team member who isn’t pulling their weight. There may be various reasons why this is occurring and, as their leader, it is important to find these. Through all the detail that might unravel, remind yourself to come back to the bigger picture. Think about the purpose of the team. What is the team responsible for? What are their outputs, their KPIs? How can the team be as effective as possible?
Thinking with this wider, more expansive view helps get beyond the details to create some actions and goals that will be beneficial to the overall purpose. Taking yourself above the details helps you think more logically and strategically and puts you in a better head space to deal with the difficult conversations.

Communicate effectively
Did you know, about 78% of communication is through body language? This includes facial expression, posture, and gestures. How are we supposed to pick up on these essential components of communication in an email, text, or transmitting through a fuzzy, disjointed screen? It is difficult to communicate effectively unless we are meeting with the person face-to-face. Throw having a difficult conversation into the mix and this method of communication becomes even more essential. So next time you feel an email will be enough, think twice. Get up from your desk and walk over to speak to the person face-to-face (or arrange a catch up if they’re off-site).

  • Don’t hide behind a screen – difficult conversations require face-to-face contact so both parties can experience holistic communication.
  • Listen – why do you think we were given 2 ears and only 1 mouth? Listening gives us a fuller picture of the situation, gives us understanding, and lets the other person know that you are serious about finding a solution, all essential elements of having difficult conversations.

Next time a difficult conversation comes across your path don’t leave it in the ‘too hard’ pile. Acknowledge the fluttering in your stomach, take a deep breath, arm yourself with these tools and tackle it face on. You and your organisation will be grateful.

Katherine Sturley

Katherine Sturley

Katherine is a RTO Consultant at MODAL and facilitates a wide variety of specialist programs.