What is a difficult conversation? It could typically involve a situation in which at least two parties are engaged where (a) there are differing opinions, perceptions, needs or wants, (b) feelings and emotions run strong and (c) the consequences or stakes are significant.

Some examples are performance improvement suggestions, turning down an idea, conflict resolution between parties and so on. The difficulty arises because of differences in every person’s interpretation of a situation, emotional quotient and their attachment to their own version of the truth. 

The key to having such conversations is to be direct. According to a Forbes study1, “This is not the time for feedback sandwiches or excess compliments. Both of these feedback techniques will mask the point of the conversation and lessen its impact. Difficult conversations become even more difficult when the delivery is muddled .”

Here are three broad guidelines that help in the process:

Know your purpose

While having such conversations, you should be clear in your mind about what you want to convey. Be flexible in the conversation if needed and try to leave out your personal equation with the person during this process. Stick to factual information only.

Prepare and plan

The more you are prepared, the calmer you will be during the conversation. Think of all questions that can be asked and how you will answer them. Share concrete examples to make your point and support the facts. Choose your words carefully to give a clear and solid message. Also share what outcome you are expecting if the discussion is around poor performance. Offering a solution will complete your message and make it more useful. Make the discussion constructive by offering alternatives.

Listen actively

It’s important to show empathy and compassion while having the conversation. Be open-minded while managing your own emotions. Allow the person to ask questions to ensure they have understood the message. If you listen actively the conversations will have a better impact. Slow down the pace of the conversation.

Particularly useful is the Situation-Behavior- Impact (SBI) model of giving feedback. Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, it focuses on describing the when or where of every instance, mentioning the observed behavior of the person in that situation, and communicating the impact of it on them and others. It is an objective way of narrowing down the difficult conversation to a sharp fact driven exchange and can be supplemented with a suggestion on alternative behavior and impact to complete the loop.

After your conversation, make mental notes on what went well and what didn’t for your future conversations. Avoiding such conversations is not a good idea. So, make sure you have such conversations in a timely manner keeping these tips in mind.

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