How to Navigate Difficult Conversations

Most people tend to put off having difficult conversations in part because they don’t know how to navigate them best. But planning for and managing these types of conversations doesn’t have to be a dreaded process. With a bit of preparation, they can be productive and fruitful for all parties involved.

So, how can you best conduct a difficult conversation to ensure your team is aligned and feels good about where they’re at? First, it’s important to distinguish between the two types of difficult conversations. A reactive conversation comes up after something like a customer service issue or a coworker who gets upset about a workplace mishap. For these, it’s helpful to use the following framework:

  1. Clarify and listen. Ask the other person these three clarifying points: Tell me more. Help me understand. Please explain.
  2. Restate and cushion. Say, “What I’m hearing is this … Is that correct?”
  3. Draw out hidden issues. Ask if there’s something else bothering them.
  4. Isolate the primary issue. If we can solve only one thing, what is it?
  5. Respond.
  6. Formulate next steps.

When it comes to proactive conversations, it’s crucial that they’re two-sided. Going into these, you should know the other person’s social style and what their reaction might be so you can tailor your approach.

Things to watch for during difficult conversations are your and the other person’s tone of voice, loaded words, being too passive or aggressive, and defensive reactions. If any of these things come up, it’s time to deescalate.

Ultimately, difficult conversations shouldn’t be avoided because no matter what your company’s product or service is, you’re ultimately in the people business. The benefit of tackling these conversations head on is that you build trust as a leader, which leads to an aligned, satisfied team.

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