5 Things to Remember Before a Difficult Conversation

November-December 2020
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Having difficult conversations in the workplace is not a new concept. We’re never going to agree with everyone. There will always be people who try to take advantage. Agendas will sometimes differ and obstacles will arise.

But, the past several months have brought a number of new challenges to our working lives — and potentially a strain on our professional relationships. From having open discourse about diversity and inclusion to disagreements with a co-worker about shifting roles to learning that your client is letting go of your firm because of pandemic-induced cutbacks, there isn’t a shortage of potential issues that could prompt more frequent difficult conversations. 

At the same time, healthy professional relationships are especially crucial right now. We need to do our best to support one another and seek solutions to problems. Not only will this help us get through these trying times with greater productivity and dignity, but it will also help preserve relationships for the long term.

When difficult conversations arise — and they inevitably will — here are a few things we can remind ourselves in advance to improve those encounters:

1. Don’t take it personally.

People can sometimes say ignorant, mean or snarky things, especially when they’re under stress. That doesn’t mean that we need to take it to heart. In fact, keeping your cool even if the other person is freaking out can help de-escalate the tension.

Also keep in mind that the person on the other end of your conversation may be dealing with something you don’t know anything about. He or she could be grieving the loss of a loved one, received bad medical news or experienced another negative influence that put them in a bad state of mind. Or, they could just be a jerk. 

Either way, how the other person behaves during the conversation may have nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally.

2. Be the hero.

If we think in terms of our lives as a story, then I’d bet we can all agree we don’t want to be the victim or the villain. So, who’s left in our cast of characters? The hero!

And what are some core attributes of a hero? In my mind, a hero is strong but flexible, open-minded, gracious and focused on setting things right in the world. The hero is not a bully, nor does the hero allow others to bully him or her. 

This is the role we can aim to play in difficult conversations. When the other person throws up a roadblock, try to find a graceful way around it. When they act like they don’t have any influence, empower them. When they attack, stay strong but respectful. Never berate the other person, even if they are acting like a villain. Be the hero of your own story.

3. Listen.

We all know that listening is a critical part of effective communication. So, why’s it so darn hard sometimes?

Before a tough conversation, remind yourself to really listen. Stay open to absorbing the information the other person is sharing. Even if you have points you want to get across and feel the urge to defend yourself, commit to listening. What the other person says may mean that everything you were planning to say needs to change now. 

If you’re caught off-guard and find yourself unable to respond appropriately in the moment, then tell the other person you need to think on it and will get back to them. Then you’ll be able to respond in a way that’s appropriate and, hopefully, more helpful.

4. Be honest.

To achieve meaningful change after a difficult conversation, it’s critical to be honest during the discourse. This means being truthful in sharing your own thoughts and concerns, as well as encouraging openness and honesty from the other party.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean it’s open season for harping on every complaint you have and nit-picking the other person. (Remember, you want to be the hero.) It does mean aiming for authentic connection and mutual understanding, even when things are tough for you to say and the other person to hear. 

Being honest in all conversations, especially difficult ones, gives all parties a better chance of understanding one another and moving forward in a productive, purposeful way.

5. Accomplish something.

Having a difficult conversation that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing can be extremely frustrating for both parties. So, the last thing to remind yourself before a difficult conversation is to navigate it with the aim of accomplish something by the end. 

Keep in mind, you may not get to the bottom of the problem that prompted the conversation, and that’s OK. But if you can conclude the call or meeting with a greater understanding of the issue, have gotten more clarity on how to proceed with the relationship or have received information that you needed to make a necessary change, then those are all accomplishments that will have made that encounter worthwhile.

Most people don’t like difficult conversations, especially PR professionals who understand the value of relationships. But, if we keep in mind a few things prior to starting the conversation, then we will set the stage for healthier, more productive

Avoiding Tough Talk

A 2017 survey of 1,344 full-time employees sponsored by Quantum Workplace found that 53 percent of employees are handling toxic situations by ignoring them. Just 24 percent reported having confronted a difficult situation directly, while only 18 percent say that they had escalated an issue to management.

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