The real art of “really difficult” conversations

December 11th, 2012

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” (Dorothy Neville).

How often have you avoided a difficult conversation; avoided saying anything because you are worried about saying the wrong thing? I know I have, and occassionally that will be the right thing to do. However, if you are in the habit of avoiding difficult conversations with work colleagues then this is rarely the best policy. The difficult issue will not go away; it will simply become more difficult and create consequences that either you or someone else will have to deal with eventually.

It is a natural reaction to avoid situations that we think will be difficult. However the alternatives are much worse, including worsening performance problems, impact on other team members, increased stress or absence and unresolved conflict, to name but a few.  The reality is that the conversation that you thought was going to be difficult is often  not so difficult after all and with practice and preparation you can improve your ability and confidence to tackle those difficult issues positively.

Here are some useful tips:imagesCAMLUJEQ

  1. The 3 P’s; plan, prepare and practice. Think about what outcome you want; prepare what and how you want to say things. It is helpful to practice an opening but do not slavishly follow a script as it is important to listen and respond. It is better to think about what you will and will not say and what you might or might not react to. You may not ever eliminate the stress you’ll feel around dealing with difficult issues completely, but you can reduce it.  Preparation will help.
  2. Don’t make assumptions and be curious. We can never accurately know someone else’s intentions so it is dangerous to assume. Instead be curious and “seek to understand before being understood”.
  3. Give bad news upfront.  Tough messages should be simply and clearly stated. Avoid the bad news sandwich as this can give mixed messages.
  4. Adopt the “And Stance”.  Take control of the conversation by pre-empting distractions, objections and blame by using “and”.  “I know you worked all night, and I know you want to do well, and I know you just joined the company, and I know that the data is sometimes wrong, and I know I could have been clearer in my instructions to you….” And, and, and.
  5. Don’t get caught up with truth, intentions and blame.  Each person involved in the situation has a different perspective about what happened and we often spend too long dealing with the “what happened”. Truth, intentions and blame get in the way.  Your goal is not to judge who’s right and wrong, it’s to achieve an outcome in the future.
  6. Demonstrate real deep listening. To create clarity and to let people know you’re genuinely listening, summarize what they’re telling you — and ask them to do the same.
  7. Be prepared for bad reactions.  You cannot and should not try to control the other person’s reactions, but you can anticipate them. Give them time to express their feelings and be emotionally ready so that you are not derailed by them.
  8. Pretend it’s 3 months or 10 years from now.  Put the difficult conversation in perspective by thinking about the future.  The conversations that are hardest right now will seem less daunting.

If you would like more guidance and an opportunity to put these skills into practice then my next seminar; Having Difficult Conversations and How to Manage Them on 28th February 2013 may be of interest. For full details see

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3 Responses

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