If you have employees, difficult conversations are the key to success in your business. And if your company is like most, the organization desperately needs more of them. At the same time, remote work environments and digital communications are making it more difficult to just walk into an office and chat. Also, since “difficult” or “crucial” conversations seem synonymous with conflict, most avoid them. Even in cases where it’s true, we have to realize conflict isn’t inherently bad, it’s how we manage it that makes it constructive or destructive.  

I recall facilitating a group mediation and one of the participants got really upset with me for making that statement about conflict not necessarily being bad. Asking why he was so emotional about it, he shared what it was like to serve in a military conflict. His experience with conflict was really bad. This is why it’s so important to invest time in the relationship before difficult conversations are needed when possible. In this case, had I known, I could have avoided that trigger or minimized it. I showed genuine empathy and understanding, he didn’t have to beat me up to prove his point and we were able to move into alignment on the bigger objectives.

While the payoff is high, the fallout from conversations gone wrong is not pretty. Trust and relational equity suffer, while resentments and misunderstandings build. If you want more success in your business, you must learn to have difficult conversations with positive outcomes. 

In my last article, we set the stage for having these important chats. I want to add a few more tools to your toolbox because they will increase your likelihood of achieving positive outcomes. So if it’s time to have one of these conversations, set a few minutes aside, grab a notepad and set your intentions using the following 10 best practices:

1. Set an agenda. Lay out the problem to be discussed, make it clear you want to hear the other person’s perspective, share your own, and work together on a solution or resolution.

2. Listen first. Until people feel heard and safe, they won’t have the mind-space to hear you. Remember what Stephen Covey said, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” And Theodore Roosevelt also said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  I’ve found both to be true so you might read them several times again.

3. Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity. The authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most found that people typically spend only about 10% of a difficult conversation on inquiry and 90% on advocating a position. A better balance leads to a better outcome.

4. Strive to understand what people are thinking, feeling and needing, not just saying. We all know, that verbal language is only a fraction of the communication. Be present, watch body language and listen for what’s NOT being said. Ask more good questions.

5. Keep the focus on understanding what is happening between the two of you, not on “winning” or being right.  Check the ego at the door. Identify your common interests in the situation, like serving clients, growing sales and making money. Let your common interest be the plumb line to keep the conversation on track.

6. Don’t ignore emotions. They are often at the heart of every difficult conversation—and they matter. Remember, anger is a secondary emotion often preceded by hurt, pain, fear, anxiety and other feelings. By acknowledging the source, you can help the other person release it to move into a more collaborative and resourceful state of mind. Knowing your and the other person’s emotional state will help you navigate to a positive outcome and a stronger relationship.

7. Stay centered, supportive, curious, and committed to problem-solving. Your attitude will greatly influence what you say. Be aware of your own emotions and triggers. Own them and don’t let them own you. Check your fears, anxieties, and pain, remembering they are just informants of a problem and simply provide the energy to address whatever “it” is.

8. Notice when you become off-center. Breathe. Choose to return to yourself and your purpose. Breathing is one of the most undervalued techniques for managing a state of mind. Learn effective breathing techniques when you’re relaxed so they become easier to do when you’re not.

9. Return to asking questions about the other’s point of view, especially if the conversation becomes adversarial. Questions buy you time to gain control of your own emotions and help the other person do the same. When emotions hijack our brain, questions interrupt the emotional brain to engage the logic or rational brain. That’s how crisis negotiators work… de-escalate, build trust and come to an agreement.

10. Be persistent in your efforts to keep the conversation constructive. If you come to an impasse, give it time to marinade. Take a break and allow what’s been shared to sink in before coming back to the conversation for closure. Just be sure to put that follow-up conversation on the calendar so it’s not conveniently put off indefinitely.

With whom do you need to have a difficult conversation? Don’t put it off any longer! Now that you have the tools to turn difficult conversations into powerful breakthroughs, it’s time to use them. Success is where preparation meets opportunity, so prepare. Read back through this and my previous articles. Get your game plan together, have a conversation and keep mastering these skills.

Often difficult conversations are signs of more systemic people issues. That’s our area of expertise. To help business owners and leaders become more aware of their barriers to having these conversations, we’ve developed a powerful and complimentary “Confident Leader Insight Assessment.” You’ll discover how to have better conversations knowing your particular communication and behavioral style.  Click HERE to take this brief but powerful assessment.

Even though we may have your name and email on record, the system asks for it anyway to send you a unique assessment link. Your information will not be shared. The report is immediate and if you’d like a little more interpretation, email me at todd@myroicoach.com or click the button below to schedule a complimentary laser session to go over your results and receive a sample new hire assessment report.

TIP:  Have your employees take it. You can plot everyone on the graph in the report to see how diverse you are in thought, behavior, and communication.  You’ll identify sources of conflict. You can also request a custom report of your team with much more detail to accelerate the RPRS (Right People Right Seats) process.

Content used under license, © Claire Communications