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Clear the Air: 9 Tips for Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are, well, difficult. We don’t like to have them with others. We don’t like others to have them with us. Consequently, we aren’t very good at them because we avoid having them as much as possible.

However, many situations only get worse without having a conversation. A lot of challenges can be avoided by sitting down and having a difficult conversation. Take a deep breath and do it.

Use these tips to clear the air when it’s time for a difficult conversation:

  1. Consider the other person’s point of view. Before going to war with someone, take the time to see things from their perspective. Be curious about how they came to the opinion you disagree with. They might have a valid issue that you haven’t considered. It’s not easy to do this, but learning how to do it will make you a more effective communicator.

    Consider what the other person knows and wants. Do they have all the facts? Sometimes, others don’t have all the information that you do.

  2. Identify the issue. What exactly is the problem? Maybe you have an employee who does not turn on the webcam during virtual meetings. You assume that they are not paying attention. The real situation might be that their children are in the same room, doing homework and they feel it is inappropriate to include them on camera.

    Be certain you know what the actual issue is before having a difficult conversation.

  3. Identify the discussion outcome. What is the goal of the conversation? Is it to get a raise or a promotion?  Will you accept a plan that will get you the result you want?

    If you don’t know the destination, any road will take you there. To achieve your outcome, determine what you want to accomplish before you have the conversation.

  4. Pick the right place, right time. Most difficult conversations need to be done in private, and at a time when everyone involved has enough time to participate and process their thoughts.
  5. Identify behavior but leave the person alone. Suppose you don’t like it when a member of your team talks over other people when they are sharing their status.

    It would be appropriate to say, “Talking over other people is very disruptive and prevents the rest of the team from benefiting from everyone’s status.” Please wait for others to pause before you add your comments.”

    It would be inappropriate to say, “You are self-centered and disruptive. Why are you so rude? What’s wrong with you?” This approach might feel good in the moment, but it always backfires.

    When you attack others, their natural instinct is to attack back. That’s probably not the outcome you desired.

  6. Allow the other person to speak. Conversations require at least two people. You can’t just drop a bomb and then head for your poker game. It’s important that you and the other person have a chance to say what’s on his or her mind.
  7. Listen. After the other person gives her side of the issue, be quiet and listen. Try to understand their point of view, even if you don’t agree with it.  When they know you consider their feelings important, you are much more likely to achieve your outcome.
  8. Forgive. Difficult conversations can result in hurt feelings. Forgiveness is part of the process of finding a pleasant place to land. Holding a grudge only creates additional pain. Forgiving another person can be incredibly challenging, but you’ll feel a lot better.
  9. Do something positive afterwards. Avoid just going back to your neutral corners afterwards. It creates an awkward situation. Go for a walk or go to a movie. Have some ice cream. Something to take the edge off.

Whom do you need to speak to? What would be solved by having that conversation? Difficult conversations are called difficult for a reason. They’re not easy conversations to have. They make both parties feel uncomfortable.

However, the ability to communicate clearly and precisely is one of the advantages of being human. We have an obligation to use that ability. You can do it.


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