Tips for Tackling DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS By Marsha D. Link, PhD | OWL Cary, NC | OWL

Tips for Tackling DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS By Marsha D. Link, PhD


By Marsha D. Link, PhD

Outstanding leaders exhibit a variety of characteristics and skills. Among these are the ability to create and implement a vision, inspire others, take calculated risks, behave ethically, think boldly, and so on.

For many leaders, it is early in their careers when they are faced with situations that require dealing with others when there are challenges that make conversations difficult to hold. Few of us, no matter what our position or function, may find that holding “difficult conversations” is one of the least favorite things we do in our jobs. However, it is the wise leader who recognizes that approaching versus avoiding these kinds of situations is the most prudent and constructive way to manage them. In order to be successful when engaging in difficult conversations, there are three principles that can guide our behavior.

  1. Prepare for the interaction.
    In order to be successful in difficult conversations, it is important to develop a plan ahead of the interaction. Spending quality time to carefully think through key ideas not only will boost your confidence, but also will help to keep the conversation focused.

    1. Outline the “purpose” and “importance” of the conversation and why it is necessary to deal with it.
    2. Identify and defuse your own emotions that surround the difficult situation. This is important so that when you are engaging in the conversation you will manage your emotions rather than letting your emotions manage you. Reflecting on your own feelings about the conversation may help you realize that your fears and uncertainties are unfounded.
    3. Envision the constructive outcome as a result of your conversation and determine how you will know if that outcome is reached. This may require that you get input from others who might be impacted by the outcome of your conversation.
    4. Prepare by getting your own state of mind in a positive zone. Additionally, recognize that your perspective is not the only one and that the person with whom you want to communicate has a perspective on the situation that is filtered through a different lens.
  2. Be proactive and initiate the conversation.
    1. Find a mutually agreeable time to meet in a neutral environment. Doing so will reduce defensiveness and set the tone for a constructive discussion.
    2. Outline the purpose and importance of the conversation that you have carefully created in your pre-planning; indicate why this is something that needs attention.
    3. Practice “active listening.” This tends to be an over-used term, but it has important implications when dealing with topics that are emotionally charged, most likely, for both parties. When one is in the active listening mode, he or she is clearly aware of both the facts and feelings that are part of the communication. Disregarding facts or feelings catches only a portion of the message. Try listening twice as much as you talk. It is amazing how the understanding increases when one is actively listening.
    4. Practice patience and compromise. You may not reach the outcome you want after one conversation. But, congratulate yourself on the fact that you have initiated the communication and consider that you have a work in process. Working out solutions to complex problems takes time.
  3. Evaluate the process after you have had the first difficult conversation.
    1. Ask yourself: “What did I do well?” “What could I have done better?” A good idea is to reflect on the words you chose during the conversation and examine if you might have used different language to deliver your message. Sometimes we forget just how powerful are words.
    2. Check back with the other person to determine if the situation you discussed in your difficult conversation has changed in any way. Sometimes, it makes a huge impact if we reach out to show that we actually want to make a positive difference in the situation/person that is challenging as opposed to being critical.
    3. Make plans for the next steps in managing the difficult situation and cycle back to the first principle to ensure that you are prepared for the next conversation.

Good luck as you plan your difficult conversations. Find and develop your leadership skills and characteristics that will help you become competent, courageous, and confident so that you can handle difficult conversations successfully.

Marsha D. Link, PhD, is founder and principal of Link Consulting and is a past president of OWL.