By Saul Nightingale, Trainer & Project Manager – Centre for Community Welfare Training. As featured in The Country Web magazine Issue 60.
It’s fair to say that most of us do not enjoy having difficult conversations. We either avoid them entirely – resulting in us feeling unacknowledged and frustrated, or we go charging in like a bull in a china shop – resulting in increased tension and conflict. While both of these approaches are common, neither response is likely to result in successful outcomes. So how can we have successful difficult conversations that are honest, respectful and productive?
Start with yourself: Prior to having your difficult conversation consider these questions:
- What do I want for myself? (What are my needs? What outcomes would I like?)
- What do I want for the other person?
- What do I want for the relationship between us?
By clearly defining your responses to these questions you are creating the equivalent of a roadmap for the conversation that outlines where you want to go and how to get back on track if you should get lost.
Make it safe: A key part of having successful difficult conversations lies in our ability to make it emotionally safe for the other person to engage in the conversation. Failure to do this is likely to result in them feeling threatened, which will lead them to respond defensively, which increases tension and inhibits honest free flowing discussion. Creating safety begins with our opening sentence and involves us signalling our intentions early, inviting the other person’s perspective and expressing our desire to work collaboratively. Examples of safety‑creating opening statements include:
I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about… I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.
I’d like to talk about… with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view.
I think we have different perceptions about… I’d like to hear your thinking on this and to discuss my thoughts too.
Notice how the above statements avoid blame, are respectful and encourage collaboration. It’s important to be attentive to safety throughout the entire conversation and to avoid those things that are toxic to safety. These include: blaming, attacking, being judgemental, seeking revenge, one‑upmanship, arrogance, sarcasm, disrespect, wanting to ‘win’ and defensiveness.
Communicate your perspective: Here we are aiming to honestly and respectfully communicate our point-of-view. When doing this it can be helpful to start by sharing your facts and observations before explaining the conclusions you are beginning to draw from these. For example:
I’m a little confused, on the one hand you have regularly asked for my ideas on… and yet I’ve noticed that none of my suggestions have ever been acknowledged, or implemented. This is leading me to suspect that my ideas are not valued.
Notice how this example communicates clearly without resorting to aggressive, judgemental or blaming language.
Really listen: It’s vital that we demonstrate our commitment to genuinely understanding the other person’s perspective. Conflict tends to escalate when people don’t feel heard, and our accurate understanding of the person’s perspective is likely to broaden our own point-of-view, as well as encourage them to want to better understand us. A simple way to demonstrate our understanding of the person is by implementing reflective listening. This involves repeating our understanding of the person’s message/perspective using our own words.
Finish clearly: Finally we want to make any actions agreed upon crystal clear. Also, depending on the situation, you may need to collaboratively set time frames, schedule a follow up date and document the outcomes of your discussion.
For more great articles download our 60th issue of The Country Web.