Managing The Dreaded Difficult Conversations by Cindy Stradling CSL, CPC

One of the challenges of being in a leadership role is having to share information that is not positive, or that may be seen as threatening or critical. These difficult conversations are often made more difficult as leaders sit and worry about the possible reaction or response by the individual or individuals.

This “what if” or worst-case scenario message becomes the focus of your thoughts, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are already hypersensitive to the emotional level or the response you have built up as the only possible outcome.

While it is not possible to eliminate difficult conversations, it is possible to reframe them and create an environment where people are less reactive and more open to engaging in conversations. It is also essential to prepare yourself for these conversations to effectively manage any emotions and avoid reacting and escalating the situation.

Setting the Stage

Setting the stage or setting the context for the conversation is essential. Think of this like setting an agenda for a meeting. People who understand what the conversation is to be about are less likely to feel blindsided or ambushed if they are just suddenly called into an office for a talk.

Setting the context also means considering how to approach the conversation. For example, letting a team member know you need to talk about not meeting productivity or performance goals is very different from asking to talk about how you can help the individual reach their goals.

Clear Message and Information

Another common issue in difficult conversations is not having a clear message and key points thought out in advance. When the speaker seems to be unclear, hesitant, or uncertain about the message, it is more likely to create uncertainty for the listener. When the message is difficult to hear in the first place, this additional uncertainty will only serve to make things worse.

Approaching these conversations as a mutual problem to solve together can be very helpful in reducing resistance and reaction. By putting the individual in the problem-solver role, it allows you to get more information, to have insights into their needs, and to look for areas of common ground.

It is impossible to avoid all negative or difficult conversations in our personal or professional lives. However, we can consider how we approach these conversations to provide opportunities to obtain more information, clarify issues, and work together to find solutions.