Most people dread the difficult, challenging conversation that needs to happen. This could include giving unpleasant feedback, following up with your boss about a raise she/he said would happen, but has not, or confronting a teammate about their problematic performance and work habits.  If these situations are not handled with great care, it could not only explode in your face but also make the other person feel like their very competency and sense of worth are called into question.

It is natural to want to avoid these conversations because of the potential for things to go wrong. On the flip side, having the conversation can deliver a great sense of relief from the trepidation that fills our mind.  When we are constantly thinking about these delicate and intense exchanges, stress and negativity can consume our thoughts and distract us from our most important work. Instead of avoiding these moments, learning how to tackle them head-on can be one of the best ways to reduce your anxiety and even advance your career.

In his landmark book, Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson et al. defines a crucial conversation as a critical conversation when stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong so thought and care are required for the exchange.

If you plan on confronting somebody with an issue, here are some steps you can take to make it go as smoothly as possible:

1. Make an appointment.  Let the person know the nature of the talk so they can adequately prepare and not be thrown off and perhaps instinctually defensive.  A right moment for you does not mean the timing works for them as well.

2. Share your goal. It is critical to articulate your desired outcome.  Do you want to share how a comment that was made in a meeting impacted you? Maybe an ideal result could be to have that person stop speaking for you. Perhaps you noticed that the relationship had been soured and your goal is to return it to the way things used to be?  Clueing the other person in on your intention would ease their natural defense mechanism and you may even discover that you have a common goal in getting the project completed on time and doing an amazing job, even if you have different visions on how to get there.

The next few suggestions come from a model used in Crucial Conversations called STATE – State the facts, Tell the story, Ask for their perspective, Talk tentatively, and Encourage testing. 

3. State the facts. When you recount the specific things that happened, it lays the groundwork for all delicate situations because they see what went into you forming your conclusions.   For example:

·      When you do not show up for team meetings, do not deliver work on time, and do not share your opinions…

·      When I fail to get a payment from you for several weeks, and you do not respond to my emails…

4. Tell your story. These are the facts plus the conclusion. Once you have shared the facts, let them know how you arrived at your findings so they can fully understand your thought process. For example:

·      When you do not show up for team meetings, do not deliver work on time, and do not share your opinions… it seems as if you do not care about this project or are not putting in the same efforts as your teammates.

·      When I fail to get a payment from you for several weeks and you do not respond to my emails, I worry that you will never pay me.

5. Ask for their story. It is vital to get their take on the story so you have the full picture.  Do not assume you already know it so encourage them to share and listen thoroughly to what they have to say.  If true understanding is to happen and a resolution is to be reached, communication has to be a two-way street. Examples:

·      I’m probably not seeing the whole story, can you help me see what is going on or happening on your end?

·      I’m starting to think you may not care about this team, do you have another explanation? What am I missing?

When the other person is sharing, it is vital to listen with curiosity because valuable insight will be shared for you to navigate the conversation better and build a connection for greater understanding to take place.  When you can stand in their shoes and see their perspectives, you have a better chance of reaching an agreement and satisfying all needs.

6. Co-create success. It is always a good idea to engage your colleague in a problem-solving exercise to make the exchange more collaborative versus combative. Examples:

·      I hear you saying you are okay with this approach, but it looks as if maybe you still have some concerns, is that right, should we talk through them?

·      What outcomes are essential to both of us?  What constraints do we both have that we need to be aware of?  What is important to each of us that the other might not be aware of?

·      I hear you are concerned with getting certain people to leave this team to complete the project.  If we can get the right people, what can the campaign look like?

7. End with a thank you. These two words work in almost any situation, it creates closure in a difficult conversation.

The two other parts to Patterson’s STATE acronym include:

·      Talk tentatively. When you are convinced of the information and act in a forceful, dogmatic manner, you can invite unnecessary resistance.  In contrast, when you are tentative and more open in your approach, you can comfortably include the other person into the dialogue.  Examples can include: “This is my opinion…,” or “I’m thinking out loud here….”

·      Encourage testing. This approach is a way to draw out more of their response if you feel they are not sharing fully. Example: I’d like to take a stab at something here, I wonder if part of the reason why you do not submit your work on time is because you do not feel connected to the team or are not challenged by the work?

An effective conversation does not just include pure content, it is also about the way the information is presented and the intention to reconcile the difference in a caring and fair way.  The best approach to a satisfying outcome is to get as much information as you can so understanding can occur.  Indeed, a difficult conversation can be an opportunity for connection.

Question to consider: What is a constructive approach you have taken to handle a challenging conversation? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Quote of the day: “One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever.” –Linda Lambert

We need to talk…