Leaders – Postponing a Difficult Conversation?

By Sharon Rich

Ever had to give an employee a negative performance review? Or tell a direct report you’re letting them go? Have to tell a boss that his way of doing business is causing problems? Need to confront a friend about asking too much without giving back? Been on the receiving end of a confrontation?

I’m hearing from a lot of leaders this week about difficult conversations they’re having…or not having. After all, most of us, when confronted with a difficult conversation procrastinate, hoping the situation will fix itself or that someone else will deal with it. Meanwhile, we get angrier and more frustrated while our opponent gets more and more set in their ways.

Then we tell ourselves stories about what we know will happen if we do face the person, until the conversation attains epic proportions in our minds. And we become even more paralyzed.

Of course, sometimes situations do resolve themselves, and we, of course, do want to give people a chance to address challenges on their own. However, if acute situations don’t resolve themselves immediately, they quickly become chronic and often worsen. The ripple effect of an intolerable situation intensifies until you have a crisis on your hands.

How are your difficult conversation skills? Can you navigate difficult conversations gracefully while creating the most positive possible outcome?

There are the obvious things to remember: prepare, know your purpose and intended outcome, don’t have a difficult conversation in an emotional moment, know the law if you represent the company, etc., etc.

Here are 5 useful less-obvious perspectives for difficult conversations:

1. Develop an attitude of service. Regardless of the topic, be there to help the other person. Do not make the conversation all about you. Don’t expect or need to be taken care of or for the other person to see the situation your way.

2. Check your assumptions. Some people want to be let go. Sometimes the person does not intend for their words to be interpreted as you heard them. Some people want to be confronted. Be as curious and open-minded as possible.

3. Find a positive mindset. Do whatever internal work you need, to go into the conversation very clear that this conversation will address a situation that needs resolving and that this is what is best for all in the long run. Look forward to achieving resolution and it will be more likely to go well. If you dread the conversation, it will be more likely to be dreadful.

4. Set your own pace. You control what you say and when you say it. Resist the urge to jump in defensively or let the other person’s pace determine your own.

5. Listen. Say what needs saying and then shut up. Listen to the other person. Listen for what’s not being said as well as for what is. Reflect what you hear and engage the other person in finding their own solutions.

Remember that it’s better to have a conversation when the degree of difficulty is at 3 than to wait until it hits 8. 9 or 10. And if you have the conversation early there are often more options available than later when your hand is forced.

Hope this is helpful.

Sharon Rich works with business leaders, aspiring leaders, and leaders in transition, who are smart, successful and frustrated. What used to work is no longer working. They keep pushing forward but aren’t getting the results they want and need. They feel ineffective and they may be suffering a crisis of confidence as a result. She partners with them to create fresh strategies that produce more effective outcomes. Get a complimentary Leadership Incorporated Special Report: 11 Things Smart Leaders Do to Waste Their Company’s Money and Lose the Respect of Their People OR “10 Mistakes Smart Job Seekers Make in Social Media”. 

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