Tips For Handling Difficult Conversations by Cindy Stradling CSL, CPC

In both personal and work relationships, knowing a difficult conversation is on the horizon can create a lot of stress and anxiety. The more conflict-avoidant you are, or the greater the concern for the other person’s reaction, the greater the level of dread and avoidance.

There are some tips to use when faced with these types of situations. Preparing yourself, choosing the place, and considering how you react during the communication can help to make even challenging conversations much less stressful.

Inner Preparation

The key to inner preparation for a difficult conversation is to be clear on what you want to convey. Take the time to write down the central points or focus areas in the conversation, and consider why they are important.

It is also essential to avoid minimizing issues or being vague about specific concerns. Vague messages may appear to the other person as unsubstantiated or of little importance, which creates a mixed message and leads to confusion and defensiveness.

It is helpful to visualize the conversation the way you want it to unfold. See and hear yourself in addressing the issue, actively listening to the other person, and generating possible solutions together. This exercise can also help you to have any documentation you need on hand when you start the actual conversation.

Choose the Location

Look for a place that offers privacy for a difficult conversation. Privacy eliminates the need for the other person to “save face” in front of colleagues. It also lends itself to more open communication.

Make sure the area is free from distractions and offers a neutral space. Calling an employee into your office if you are a leader can put them on the defensive or intimidate them in providing insight and options for a solution.

Ask Meaningful Questions

Telling the individual what the meeting is about in neutral language and then asking their insight prevents an immediate defensive response or an argument. Stating why you are meeting, “We are meeting today to discuss attendance” is less aggressive than, “Why are you always calling in sick?”.

Listen attentively to their response, and avoid trying to formulate your next question or rebuttal to their comments. Use their own words to reflect the message you hear, and ask for more information to help you to get a better perspective from their point of view.

Share your perspective on the issue and be prepared to answer questions from the other person. Do not react or become personally attached to your “side” of the story as being the only truth to the issue.

Work Collaboratively to Solve the Issue

Asking the other person for ideas on solutions after you have exchanged information and have a picture of the issue. By inviting a collaborative solution that addresses their needs and your needs, the relationship grows rather than stops.

Listening to others and not requiring them to comply with your decision, whenever possible, is a good way to set the tone for future positive and proactive conversations.