How to make difficult conversations easier
Updated: May 21
One of the unanticipated stressors of the current situation for some is the thought of having to conduct difficult conversations with team members, customers or suppliers remotely, by video call, phone or even email. A difficult conversation is difficult enough without introducing additional ‘noise’ into the communication channel.
Let’s consider three aspects of the conversation that could harbour the perceived difficulties: the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, and discover strategies for each.
1. Why do you anticipate the conversation being difficult?
Often people fear the other person’s reaction and the feelings of shame, guilt or failure this might invoke in us. Most people would not set out to deliberately upset a colleague or business partner, yet we can feel somehow responsible for their reaction. If someone is given news they were not expecting, that is likely to affect their job, work conditions or their assumptions about their financial position, it is only natural that they may display their anger or upset. This does not make it your fault or responsibility.
Strategy: Take time prior to the conversation to really explore the ideal outcome you would like from the conversation, for both/all concerned. What could be possible? Consider also the likely reaction you might expect, and how you might prepare for that.
2. What do you need to get across?
What is the main message you need the other person to hear? In the current situation it may well have something to do with the future working relationship. You might find the person is less shocked or surprised than you think; for many, the ambiguity and uncertainty of not knowing is worse than knowing, even if it’s bad news, and being able to make plans.
Strategy: One technique we advocate in our training is to metaphorically go around to their side of the table and try to see the world from their viewpoint. What expectations do they have? What might exacerbate or soften the blow? How can you help them come to terms with the news? Ensure they have someone with them, or line up some support?
3. Consider the ‘how’
You are responsible for the ‘how’ in terms of your empathy and your ability to walk the line between honesty/authenticity and tact. The word ‘tact’ comes from the Latin ‘tactus’ meaning touch, handling or sense of touch.
Strategy: Plan the conversation, using whatever technique works for you: a Mindmap, decision tree or even a flowchart. Never underestimate the power of a well-timed command question (‘tell me what you need now, in order to take in this information’) and some dynamic listening while they formulate an answer. While you’re listening, you’re learning how the world looks from their side of the table. Silence really can be golden.