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/Nigel Walpole Managing difficult conversations

Through my many years of experience running management development programmes, the same topic always presents itself when participants are asked what they found most beneficial. The opportunity to practise difficult conversations.

If you probe a bit deeper about why this was so valuable, the reason is frequently three-fold:

  1. Having those conversations is one of the toughest things managers have to do, and
  2. There is a preparation process that all managers can use and a structure that really helps, and
  3. Rehearsing a conversation can be daunting but at least it is ok to get it wrong then. Also, having rehearsed, the later reality is much easier.Chairs

Having said that, obviously no two conversations are identical - each one requires forethought, planning and rehearsal – so there is no set formula. Training is really about prior planning, key behaviours and attitudes, and some tips and techniques.

Here are some top tips and techniques that often prove very useful when preparing for difficult conversations.

  1. Get the environment right
    This doesn’t necessarily need to be a neutral place, but it could be. Your own territory may make you feel more confident whilst a neutral venue may help them open up more. Think about what you want to achieve and decide.

  2. Establish the issue
    Clarify, in your own mind, the central issue to be raised and don’t be distracted from this.

  3. Decide what you want to accomplish
    Once you are clear about the issue you need to decide what you want to accomplish. Challenge yourself, straight away, about whether you are being fair. There may be an element of negotiation within the conversation, so decide also on the areas where you might be prepared to negotiate.

  4. Ensure you listen intently
    Having said that you must be 100% prepared to listen to what the other person has to say before making up your mind. Remember a judge must weigh up ALL the evidence.

  5. Think about the other person
    Are they aware of the problem? What solution might they suggest? If you are fearful of their reaction when you raise the subject, visualise their reaction…then halve it, visualise again…then halve it again…now you are close to reality.

  6. Respect the other person
    Resolve to treat the other person with respect at all times and make sure you do so throughout the conversation. Keep checking back on yourself and asking ‘are you respecting them’?

  7. Be direct
    Plan and then rehearse your opening statement – be direct: “I need to talk to you about…”

  8. Ask questions
    This will help you get to the bottom of any underlying issues.

  9. Use the silence 
    Let the other person be silent for a while if they wish

  10. Ask questions 
    Yes, I know it’s a repeat but it’s so important!

  11. Body language 
    Remember that your body language communicates too.

  12. Use summarising / paraphrasing skills
    For example, “From what you’ve told me, I …”

  13. Don’t take verbal attacks personally
    It is the issue not you that is causing these.

  14. Be specific
    If you want to change behaviour, rehearse your description of the specific behaviour you want the person to change.

  15. Follow ups
    Plan in advance how you might follow up this initial conversation … during the conversation decide how you are going to follow up and explain it clearly. For serious conversations, document the discussion and the follow-up plan.

  16. Tears!
    Have tissues available. Remember, tears = something underlying to be discussed.

  17. Ask questions 
    Yes, I know it’s yet another, repeat but it’s so important.

  18. Tactics!
    Silence, unresponsiveness, evading, stonewalling, sarcasm – my advice is simply to address the tactic and label the behaviour openly and sincerely – “I don't know how to interpret your silence”. (You will want to rehearse that line if you anticipate the tactic being used).

  19. Re-establish a positive connection
    Do this as soon as possible after the difficult conversation – don’t avoid them.

  20. Practice, Practice, Practice
    The reason they are known as difficult conversations is because they er… aren’t easy.

These thoughts are all about giving you confidence. Such conversations will never be easy. Last month we wrote about Mental Toughness and actually this will help you develop the mental toughness to deal with such situations. Next week we’ll be considering ‘Resilience’ and these 20 tips will help you to be more resilient before, during and after difficult conversations.

Contact us now to discuss how we can help your management team develop their skills and conquer difficult conversations.

Nigel Walpole

Nigel Walpole, MD, Bray Leino Learning

In my series of blogs I’ll talk through my thoughts on some of the key issues facing managers in the workplace - lessons learnt, tips for success and general musings.

Copyright © 2014 Bray Leino Learning

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