Difficult conversations are a challenge but they don’t have to be.
In your personal life or at work, when you have something difficult to share, performance feedback that isn’t pleasant, a challenging stakeholder or colleague, or maybe just someone in your life you want to speak up to share how you feel, you can build the confidence to master these conversations.
This is like a mini-course on difficult conversations with a framework you can use today to be more effective in your communication at work or at home.
What You’ll Learn
My 4 steps that are proven to help you master any difficult conversation
How to discuss any topic and maintain a positive relationship
How to repair an existing difficult relationship
Featured in This Episode
Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heein
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
Leadership and Self Deception by Arbinger Institute
Download the Master Difficult Conversations worksheet
Apply for 1-1 coaching with Melissa
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Navigating Your Career Podcast
Ep 18. Master Difficult Conversations
Hello! How are you? Welcome.
This past week was so symbolic of starting new. If you’re in the US we had a new president sworn in, the first woman vice president, who is also black and Asian American. Even if you don’t like the new leadership, it’s still an opportunity to turn a new leaf and unite together.
This is also a time, with the new political leaders, recent riot at the Capital, the continued fight for racial equity, that difficult conversations are happening more than ever.
We are in a time where difficult conversations are happening more than ever.
Sometimes these difficult conversations are happening directly F2F with friends and family or coworkers, sometimes on social media or through text or email.
Sometimes these conversations are happening with yourself.
That may sound odd so let’s talk about that.
How many times do you have a difficult conversation with someone without actually talking to them?
Maybe you see something they post online, a bumper sticker in your work parking lot, or hear a comment from someone you know.
You notice an immediate negative response in your body.
You may tense up.
Your heart rate may accelerate.
Maybe you notice your shoulders raising up to your ears.
You may be thinking…
I can’t believe they just said that.
Should I say something?
How am I going to work with them now?
That’s not right, what do I do?
I’m going to say something.
How do I say it?
I don’t want to damage the relationship.
I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
I don’t want to get in trouble.
Someone will be mad at me if I ruffle the feathers.
So you might feel paralyzed.
You might not know how to approach a difficult conversation so that is what I’m going to help you with today.
This doesn’t just apply political or social topics – it applies to any difficult conversation.
If you have a colleague that you aren’t getting along with, a boss that makes you dread going to work, this approach will work for those situations as well.
Let me give you an example. Back in my corporate days, in one of my earlier roles I was a learning & development business partner. What this really meant is I met with people in other departments to understand their function, triage performance problems or policy needs, and determine the appropriate learning solution.
One of my internal clients and I could not be any more different. This became a problem when I wasn’t able to effectively influence her and our meetings became unproductive. She wanted things her way and there was no budging. She wanted me to do as she said as oppose to partner with her and collaborate.
This is not me. I’m very collaborative and had an expertise, one that she was not interested in using. It was very frustrating.
So I tried a lot of different approaches and nothing seemed to work. I tried adapting my style, approaching with different angles, building a relationship, and all of it fell flat. At the end of the day it came to a head. We were in a meeting and I said something like “I want to support you in this and help you get the outcome you’re looking for” well, she replied with, “To be honest Melissa, I don’t feel supported by you. I don’t think what you offer is what I need. You’re not doing what I need you to do and I don’t think this relationship is working”
Cut. Me. In the. Heart.
I was so hurt by this. I tried so hard to work with her. I was shook.
Then truth be told I got a little ticked off. How dare she right? I’m just trying to help. I am the expert. I am bending over backwards, and this is what I get?
Had to blow off that steam!
Then I got to work.
I enrolled in a Difficult Conversations program, read up on emotional intelligence and decided I wanted to repair this relationship.
I took accountability, swallowed my pride, and went back in and this time I was able to get the relationship back on solid ground. I was able to actually build a positive and trusting relationship with this person.
This person who wanted nothing to do with me, later became someone who sought me out, who even when I wasn’t in that role anymore, years later came to me for advice. Then, others who had a challenging time with her actually came to me to get advice to help them with their relationships.
How fun is that? I came out of that hurtful kicking and screaming how dare she moment to being a role model and advisor for that same type of problem.
So let’s get to it. I’m going to share with you my approach and give you some resources at the end if you want to dig deeper but know just following these steps in this episode will make a world of difference for you.
It will help you to have a difficult conversation personally or professionally without it damaging the relationship, your reputation or making you super stressed and overwhelmed.
First, we want to shift from difficult conversations to learning conversations.
When we go into a conversation expecting it to be difficult or thinking it might be – we come from a place of right vs. wrong, blame, we get caught up in our feelings and emotions, and almost go into a survival mode of needing to win.
When we shift to thinking of the issue as a learning conversation, our brains go to exploring that we may not be right, where is the other person right, how is their contribution as valid as mine? We maintain balance and are more likely to go in looking for a compromise that is win-win.
We have to remember we all have unconscious bias. Even when you’re right, you’re only right to your brain. I say that somewhat playfully but really, our realities are based on our own constructs from our own experiences and through our personal filter. So, remember each person is the same that way, we all have our own thoughts and judgements we hold to be true and some of what we think is factual and some isn’t. Sometimes we can tell what is and isn’t and sometimes we can’t. It’s a bit like the Matrix.
Having that open mind going in, will help you interpret the information better and draw conclusions that are more unbiased.
You can ask questions of yourself like “What might they be thinking this means?” “What is the lens they are using to get those conclusions?” “What might they be seeing that I’m not?” “What might I be seeing that they aren’t?”
Second, we want to practice emotional intelligence. We are all emotional. As humans we have emotional responses to everything, whether we realize it or not. Every thought we have generates a feeling. Acknowledge that about yourself and about the other person.
There are several strategies people use when it comes to emotion – minimize which is to make them feel small or dismiss them, maximize is to make them feel really big and overwhelming, bypass is to change the subject, problem solve, would be trying to fix the feeling rather than address it, and empathize is to demonstrate an understanding of the feeling without agreeing to it.
In the work setting you are probably more likely to experience minimize, bypass, or problem solve. Some would even say emotions don’t belong at work but that is just not possible.
I think instead we need to understand that they do exist and we need to acknowledge we are all human. It doesn’t mean you have to cry in an office or ask someone to let it all out.
It just means, even when people aren’t showing it or if you think they are too much, try to come from a place of empathy.
If you understand your unique preferences and tendencies for communication you can learn to flex into other styles for better results. This is something that I work with clients on in my coaching – discovering your agile emotional intelligence rating and then learning how you can apply it to others as well so you be as effective as possible.
Third, is to listen. Listen not to argue but instead to understand.
When we spend time in our own heads, waiting to talk, or thinking about what we’ll say, or how we are feeling about what they are saying, we lose key information. To do this takes some trust of yourself, trust that you will be able to say what you want and make your points without prepping your response in your head while they are talking.
Fourth, If this is a situation you can prepare for, I highly recommend doing that. You can sit down before the learning conversation and ask yourself:
What are my thoughts – what is it that I think is true about this and what do I make that mean?
So with my earlier example, some of my thoughts about this person doesn’t know my area of expertise, it is my job to help her determine the right solution, she is being disrespectful of me.
Do a thought download on the topic, what you think about it, let it all out.
Then, ask yourself, what data or evidence are you using to make your conclusion?
In my example, it was my identity, my job description, my assumptions about their experience, so really not a lot of factual data – more it seems I was making this about me and what it meant if my advice wasn’t listened to. Did that mean I wasn’t an expert? Did that mean I wasn’t doing my job? See this is really important here. We are already seeing that something that was so true for me was really more about me than anything else.
Then you want to ask, what are you making this mean about you – what lens are you using?
This is where I can get into how this questioning of a project was really connected to me not feeling secure in what that questioning meant about me. I was connecting my self-worth to this which is why it was hurtful – are you seeing how this is connected?
Now let’s keep going, next ask what is the outcome that you want? What will be helpful for you and for the other person?
Now for me again, this is where I could see my own thought errors but then also decide what was more important for me was to have the relationship of trust and prove my expertise in baby steps to build that influence and partnership than it was to win everything I thought was right.
Next you go through this exercise for the other person –
What do you think they are thinking?
What is the evidence they may be using?
What is the lens they are looking at it with? What are they making it mean?
What outcome do they want?
Then you can take a look and do a gap assessment of where they are and where you are.
You can decide then what you want to advocate for, what is important for you, the outcome you want, and go into the conversation with a different perspective.
Shift from difficult to learning conversations
Practice emotional intelligence
Prepare for the conversation
If you find yourself unable to prepare and in the thick of what you think is a difficult conversation – you can still use this approach
You can still shift to learning
Practice emotional intelligence
Listen to the other person and seek to understand – keeping in mind the preparation questions I shared with you – knowing you may be bringing more than the facts to the conversation.
If you want to dig deeper on this topic I have 3 books I’d recommend:
First – The program I went through was based on the book by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The authors are members of the Harvard Negotiation Project and the book is a New York Times Best seller. It’s a quick read with some practical insights and examples.
Secondly, I’d recommend the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves. This one is great if you like a personalized approach – the book includes an online assessment so you can see how emotionally intelligent you are and then learn through exercises and movie clips how to improve in any area you want to. It’s an international best seller.
Third – Leadership and Self Deception – Getting Out of the Box – by the Arbinger Institute – this is a great one to help you see outside of yourself and see how we blind ourselves and unknowingly sabotage our efforts to achieve success and happiness.
If you enjoyed this episode and you want more, I invite you to join my email list. You get tools, tips, and inspiration sent straight to your mailbox every week. For example – my insiders are getting a worksheet that goes along with this episode so they can apply the work. How great is that? It’s a no-brainer. To join head over to www.melissamlawrence.com/email and add your name. I’ll put the link in the show notes.
Have an amazing week.
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