How to Approach Difficult Conversations

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a difficult conversation many times in our lives. We know how it feels, right? So, when it comes to being the deliverer of a message that we think the other person will find hard to hear, the anxiety creeps in and builds up.

We caught up with Sarah Garner, trainer and an award-winning people change specialist on steps to prepare for tough chats. 

Sarah Garner:

We’re all grown-ups. We’re all nice people. We don’t want to be the one to cause ill-will, bad-feeling or fear and disappointment in another person. So we might avoid the conversation altogether. Or we might play for time, letting the problem go on for too long. We might brave the conversation, only to water down the message in the moment.

There are loads of tried and tested tools out there to help us make the conversation happen with the greatest chance of success.

The set of rules I stick to, that help me navigate tough conversations are:

  1. Get clear on exactly what the issue is: a change in behaviour, or an improvement in performance, or both. Ensure that it is clear enough that I can describe the change I need to see unambiguously and succinctly.
  2. Know what I think needs to happen and by whom and when including any resources and activities that need to be put in place for change to occur.
  3. Decide what next steps will be taken after the conversation, and what success will look like.
  4. Ask myself what is going to prevent me from arranging the meeting and delivering the message clearly and respectfully and deal with those obstacles.
  5. Clear my diary before the meeting and after the meeting so that I can compose myself ahead of time and take a moment after the meeting to reflect.
  6. Do your prep, and then put yourself to one side.
  7. Go into a difficult conversation being prepared to listen.
  8. Connect with your colleague as a person. Remember all the good in who they are and focus on them.

If you practice this way you will find your own anxieties will begin to recede.

Preparing myself this way helps calm the nervous system. It gives me the best chance of delivering difficult news with compassion and empathy I would want and need if I were receiving this sort of news.

If you can hold a tough conversation with care and consideration, the chances are you will build trust rather than knock it down. And that is surely a win-win.

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What is your experience of using difficult conversations at the workplace? We’d love to hear from you. You can tweet us using #UMGTraining @UModernGov.