How to navigate difficult conversations
In this article, I share advice to prepare for tough dialogues.
You know the feeling when you’re dreading an upcoming conversation? You might get butterflies in the stomach, or feel your hands getting clammy. Often, we avoid these moments because we’re worried about hurting someone else’s feelings or inflaming a situation that may already feel tense.
Sometimes, it feels easier to avoid life’s harder aspects than tackle them head-on. But, without welcoming and tolerating discomfort in the short term, it’s virtually impossible to move forward to a productive long-term solution. When we avoid those difficult – but necessary – conversations, we cheat ourselves out of a better future.
We have a saying in sport: ‘Nothing worth having comes easy.’ There is always preparation, learning, discomfort, repeated effort and leaps of faith to grow and improve. It’s no different when tackling other challenges, we need to understand, and commit to, the process. The more we practice, the less fear and anxiety we will feel, and the greater our chances of achieving a successful outcome.
Athletes believe feedback is a gift. We watch video replays of performances in slow-motion to identify areas of improvement, and we look to our coaches daily for positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. But as adults in our day-to-day, we rarely get this kind of quality feedback. If you can approach difficult conversations with positive intentions – as an opportunity to provide useful feedback – it can go a long way to producing a beneficial outcome for everyone involved.
Starting a dialogue
This is why I think it’s essential that people understand how to construct and approach tough conversations – whether that’s with friends, colleagues, or partners.
If you’re in any unit or team and you feel as though things aren’t working, it’s important to be able to articulate why, while opening up space for resolution. You stand to gain so much more by having the conversation rather than avoiding it. Especially if you approach the situation with compassion and do some preparation in advance.
Here’s a checklist to help you get the elements right and make the experience as painless as possible.
Consider time and environment
Make sure that the timing is appropriate for the conversation. It’s unfair to surprise someone at the last minute or leave them in anticipation for longer than necessary. Allow enough time to work through things. There’s no point allotting 15 minutes for a dialogue that might need an hour, or more, to work through.
Similarly, ensure you’re hosting in the right environment. No one wants to be in a public space or a room filled with colleagues when given feedback, whatever nature it may be. Try to find a neutral, safe space so everyone can feel comfortable.
Prepare and practise
It takes courage to step into a potentially uncomfortable space, even if it’s something that’s required by your professional role.
Often, people neglect to prepare in advance or practise how they’ll navigate hard conversations. That’s a real shame, because if you can put some time into predicting the person’s reaction and any questions or rebuttals they may have, the conversation would likely run smoothly and have a greater chance of yielding a mutually positive outcome. Preparation helps you to feel more confident and can enable you to manage your emotions better and be more agile in the moment. Try rehearsing with a friend or mentor in advance ¬– consider your tone as well as your words. Practise talking to yourself in the mirror to ensure your facial expressions are helping you deliver feedback with care and sincerity.
Lead with facts
You need to try and remove as much emotion from the conversation as possible. Write down the facts you want to discuss and have examples ready to reference. These conversations always go better when they’re not interpreted as a critique of a person’s character, but an objective conversation about behaviours, actions and choices.
Try to consider the facts at hand from the other person’s view as well. Take the time to think about their circumstances, how things came to be, and what factors might have led to the situation. Be open-minded, as there could very well be external or environmental issues at play, too. These factors may be having an impact beyond what you are aware of.
Have talking points
This can be a really useful tool to have at your disposal, and it’s perfectly okay to take a piece of paper into a conversation of this nature. It can be easy to lose your train of thought if you’re under emotional pressure, so having a physical document to refer to can help to ground you.
Start with an introduction, and then list the issues you want to address in point form with supporting examples. Also, consider some possible ideas or outcomes that could be explored, so you have a loose roadmap towards resolution if alternatives are not suggested. Structurally, you may also find it useful to refer to company values or policies, depending on the context. This will help to anchor the conversation with a shared reference point.
See things through
It’s no good opening a dialogue if you’re not going to follow it through to the other side. If you initiate the conversation, then it’s your responsibility to ensure that you get to the conclusion.
Give the other person enough time to digest and respond to what you’ve said and actively listen to what they’re saying. Try to highlight strengths and positive attributes where you can, to show appreciation and understanding, yet remain firm and kind about what needs to be addressed. Allow them to help explore options and pursue potential solutions, and if appropriate, offer your personal or professional support. We are all more likely to reach an action point and follow through with changes, if we feel that we’ve got ownership of the outcome.
Conclude with actions
Before you wrap up the conversation, write down some actions that have been agreed upon by both parties. This can also be done along the way to pause the conversation, which can be extremely useful if things start to get heated. Try to let the other person articulate the actions or goals and use continued enquiry to tease out ownership, detail and reasonable timelines. By giving them the chance to drive the next steps, you can cultivate self-belief, trust, safety and higher engagement.
Check if there is anything left unsaid and take the time to thank the other person for investing in the relationship and helping to work through this challenging situation.
Make a time to follow up
From a perspective of care and respect, agree to touch base again. It might be 24 hours or as long as a week – depending on the necessary outcomes. Ideally, you want to check how the other person is processing post-conversation, confirm that agreed action items are both correct and complete and follow up on any expected progress.
Most of these tough dialogues happen with people you have an ongoing relationship with, so to preserve rapport, don’t tiptoe around them and pretend the conversation didn’t happen. Even if you are only halfway there and additional conversations are needed, you are moving in the right direction. If you are working through difficult issues and conversations with good spirits and intentions, then you should feel really proud.
Reflect and learn
Post-dialogue, take some time for yourself to reflect. Consider what went well, as well as what didn’t work and why. Look for things that you’ve learned from the experience that could help inform you the next time you’re in a similar situation.
Holding a difficult conversation in a respectful and caring manner is a skill that we should – and can – all develop. I’m not saying it’s easy, but like most things in life – planning, practice and patience will help you to develop your capabilities and execute with greater ease.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.