businessmen-in-conversation1You have made a decision to let a longstanding employee go because she no longer adds value to your company; your number one supplier is slipping badly and if they don’t improve, you are going to contract with another supplier; you need to tell your wife you are going on a week long golf trip with your buddies (and you neglected to consult her…ok this isn’t a business issue per se but business and life all blend together anyway, don’t they?).  Whatever the situation, knowing you have to face it and have a conversation makes your stomach turn inside out.

There’s good news. You can take the sting out of these dreaded conversations and greatly increase the probability that the outcome will be good.  Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project about a decade ago.  Lest you think it is outdated, I can tell you I dug it out last week to help me through a difficult conversation and it made all the difference.  While the book itself is a little cumbersome, the approach has worked for me everytime I have used it.

I am confident that without planning my difficult conversation, I would have gone into it angry and blaming.  I expect I would have come out of it angry and blaming too!  Instead, I followed the wisdom of discussing what matters most and came out with much more than I expected. While it makes for a less interesting blog post, I won’t give details to protect the innocent! What I will give is a list of tips on having a difficult conversation.  This represents a blend of things I borrowed from the book and my coach training:

  • Prepare.  A difficult conversation by nature means the stakes are often high. Invest time planning what you want to say, what your impact might be and what you want to achieve.
  • Check your motivation. What are you hoping to achieve?  How can this be about learning, sharing and joint problem solving instead of finger pointing?
  • Outline three conversations. There is your version, their version and a “third version” which is more objective. Walk thru each version as you see it. For the third version, come up with a more neutral “factual” version that strips away the emotions and baggage of the first two stories.
  • Be face to face. Make a point of getting in front of the person. It shows you are serious and gives you both access to a lot more cues than email or telephone conversations.
  • Share and invite. Share your purpose. Invite the other to join as a partner to sort out the situation.
  • Explore.  Start from the third story and then get to your story and theirs.  Bring your curiousity. Acknowledge feelings behind arguments. Drop defensiveness.
  • Distinguish intentions from impact.  Tease things apart.  Their intention was likely good.  Maybe the impact of their action/ or inaction was not. They may feel the same about your intention and impact.
  • Invent. Come up with options that meet the most important concerns and interests of you both.  Borrow from labour relations and use interest based bargaining to go for a win-win.

It’s not rocket surgery or brain science as my good friend likes to say.  It’s plain old common sense. It’s just hard to see in the heat of the moment. 

Here are some other takes on how to have a difficult conversation:

1 Comment

  1. Delphine du Toit on January 30, 2019 at 8:59 am

    Firstly, although that Harvard work was done so long ago, in evolutionary terms its no time at all! As a species we’ve not learnt and internalized that common sense wisdom yet, although there are those individuals among us who have. And even then there’s always the risk of sliding into old habits, so this is a great reminder. A good time to apply the Steven Covey rule of minding the gap between stimulus and response.

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