Research Articles

Improving the Outcomes of Difficult Conversations

Improving the Outcomes of Difficult Conversations is critical for our relationships, because we’ve all had them or needed to have them. I’m referring to those difficult conversations that are apt to be put off for too long, go poorly, or never happen at all. Yet, the need to face difficult conversations is becoming more and more important as many of us encounter these types of situations on a regular if not daily basis, especially those of us who work in fast paced, demanding environments. While the situations may vary, from asking for more compensation or flex time, facing a co-worker who is continually interrupting you in meetings or addressing a team member who isn’t keeping their commitments, having conversations go badly can greatly impact our relationships, careers and organizations.

Why are these conversations so hard? Because many times the stakes are high and involve some sort of conflict where emotions run strong and may trigger embarrassment, confusion, anxiety, anger, or fear—if not in us, then in our counterparts.

Once emotions “hijack” the situation, we are no longer in control of how we react. Instead our basic survival instincts – fight or flight kick in. These instincts have probably helped or protected us in some cases, but many times, they contribute to escalating emotions. With our fight instinct, we may have said things that we regret, with the flight response we are most likely frustrated and have pent up emotions about the issue we did not address.

So, what can we do about it? For the past 25 years I have focused on helping others to prepare for and manage stressful conversations so that they come away feeling heard, validated and confident that they are moving closer to their goals while maintaining and in many cases strengthening their relationships with others.

I have seen firsthand that people can become more comfortable and successful with conducting difficult conversations if they approach them with greater self-awareness and apply some simple communication techniques. Although interactions between people in difficult situations are always unique, I have found taking the following steps can greatly improve your chances of being successful.

1. Prepare mentally and frame the situation

Before going into a conversation, map out your thoughts to clarify what you want to express as well as what you want to achieve. The purpose and focus of the meeting will become much clearer.

Mentally practice the conversation by imagining various possibilities both positive and negative. Consider what your reaction would be to each scenario and visualize yourself handling them with ease and confidence. Thinking through each scenario ahead of time allows you to be more present during the conversation and helps you adjust your attitude.

Your attitude toward the conversation will influence the outcome. If you think this is going to be a really bad experience, it probably will be. If on the other hand you believe that some good can come of it, that will likely be the case. Envision the outcome you are hoping for. Ask yourself:

• What is your purpose for having the conversation and what do you hope to accomplish?
• What would an ideal outcome look like?
• Are any of your “buttons” being pushed or strong emotions triggered?
• What would happen if you did not have the conversation?

Identifying how you feel before going in can help you “calm the waters” with yourself and try to look at the situation objectively.

2. Seek to understand your counterpart

Consider who you are having the conversation with and what they may be thinking about the situation. Are they aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? Are you making assumptions about the other person’s intentions? You may feel intimidated, ignored, disrespected, or marginalized, but be cautious about assuming that this was your counterpart’s intent.

Try to place yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider their situation and background. Remember, there are always two sides to the story and reasons why they people behave the way they do. Maybe they struggle with trusting and connecting with others. Whatever the root of their actions, try to use empathy to understand where they’re coming from. Empathy will help the other person feel less intimidated and can steer the conversation toward common goals.

Begin to reframe a perceived opponent as your partner.

3. Set the Stage

Beginning a difficult conversation is sometimes the hardest part, especially if it has to do with trying to change people’s perceptions or behaviors. Establishing “permission“ beforehand sets the stage for a more open and less threatening dialog. Letting the person know you care about the relationship will make anything you say much easier for them to hear. You will find your own words to do this, but here are a few examples of how to begin the conversation:

• I care about our relationship, and I have something to tell you that’s hard to share.
• I’d like to talk to you about _________, it may get personal so I want to know if you are in a good frame of mind to discuss it right now.
• I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
• I think we have different perceptions about ___________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this and share my perspective as well.

4. Stay in Purposeful Dialog

Go into the meeting with the goal of learning as much as possible about your opponent/partner and their point of view. Be open, curious and non-judgmental. Let your partner talk without interrupting them and really listen to them. Whatever you hear, try not to take it personally – it’s not about you, they may be just venting their own feelings about the situation. Watch their body language and listen for what is not being said. What do they really want and may not be expressing?

Acknowledgment means showing that you’ve heard and understood. Explain what you think they have expressed and what you understand their needs/hopes to be. Try to understand the other person so well you can make the argument for them. Remember, acknowledgment does not mean agreement. By saying, “this sounds really important to you,” doesn’t mean you are agreeing with what they said. When you sense your opponent/partner has expressed all they want on the topic, it’s your turn. What is different about your perspective and how can you clarify your position without minimizing theirs?

If they are not aware of the impact their behavior is having, it’s important to address that. Using the SBID model (Situation, Behavior, Impact, Desired Outcome) is helpful in delivering this information in a non-threatening way. Be specific about the situation and the behavior that occurred, let them know the impact it had and then express what you would like to see moving forward. Here’s an example of what it looks like:

  • (Situation/Behavior) “I’ve noticed that you struggled to deliver the last three reports on time. In fact, they were several days late”
  • (Impact) “It impacted our client because they were waiting for that data to make an important decision and we want them to feel they can rely on us.”
  • (Desired Outcome) “We can figure it out, but let’s make sure you’re set up to optimize your time going forward so we can deliver the reports to the client on-time.”

When someone has not performed well, they may feel guilty, defensive, frustrated and angry. When we focus on what went wrong and why, we usually find a lot of reasons for failure, but focusing on these is not really going to help them move to future success. Using self- reflective questions can help someone create a path forward.
Ask them what they think might work to improve the situation. Asking for the other’s point of view creates safety and encourages them to take ownership and seek insights. You might ask them:

• “How can we talk about this in a solutions-focused way?”
• “How can this conversation be the most useful for you? Is there any way I can support you?
• “What’s the biggest insight you’ve had from what’s happened?

Whatever they say, find something that you can build on and encourage them. Discussing solutions builds trust and commitment and motivates them to do better.
When a difficult conversation ends, instead of just leaving the meeting, thank the other person for taking the time to meet with you, even if you disagreed or argued. As challenging as it may have been for you, it was most likely just as hard for them. Using these methods can help both you and your partner learn to approach difficult conversations in a productive, professional way. The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to move forward and have the next conversation.

Written by Colleen Franca, CPCC