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 episode is a mini workshop in how to handle difficult conversations. Whether it’s a colleague, boss or personal relationship – you’ll learn the framework you can use today to not only master a difficult conversation but repair a relationship that has gone south.
Get the worksheet to apply the framework in the links below.
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
Join Melissa’s Email Insiders for weekly tips and inspiration to advance your career
Apply for 1-1 coaching with Melissa
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Welcome to Navigating Your Career, the only podcast that blends personal development, professional skills, and psychology to help you get happy.
At work and live the life you want.
If you want to stop feeling stuck and start are feeling better, this is the place for you. I’m your host, Melissa Lawrence. Let’s get started.
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the podcast. I am so happy to be here with you today and to bring you another MVP episode. And this one is an early, early episode around mastering Difficult conversations, which has come up a lot lately in my client conversations. Whether it’s a difficult stakeholder, a difficult manager, even a difficult person in your personal life, you can use the steps that I share with you in this episode. You’ll also hear about a Master Difficult Conversations worksheet that I had created and shared with my email insiders at the time that this episode was originally released. You can still get this companion worksheet. So if you want to take the steps and the strategy that I share in this episode to the application level, which is really where change really happens, it’s not just to listen, but to take action, you can still get this worksheet. You just go to my website, www.melissamlawrence.com/conversations, and you can download it right away. It’s absolutely free, so I will put a link in the show notes so that you can get your hands on that. Now, without further ado, let’s jump into this episode on mastering Difficult Conversations.
Hello. How are you? Welcome to this week’s episode of Navigating Your Career. 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 new political leaders. The recent riot at the Capitol, the continued fight for racial equity. The difficult conversations are happening more than ever. We are in a time where difficult conversations are something that is happening face to face with friends and family or co workers, sometimes on social media or through text or email. And these aren’t all related to political discord or things in current events. Difficult conversations happen with your colleagues regularly, and you might be having them directly or indirectly. And sometimes these conversations are happening with yourself. And that might sound odd, so I want to talk a little bit more 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. All of those things could be going through your mind. 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. Whether it’s political, social, or happening in the workplace, 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. So let me give you an example. Back in my corporate days, in one of my earlier roles, I was a learning and development business partner.
What this really meant is I met people in other departments to understand their function, triage performance problems or policy needs, and then determine the appropriate learning solution. One of my internal clients and I could not be 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 budgeting. She wanted me to do as she said, as opposed to a partner and collaborate. Now, this is not me. I’m very collaborative, and I had a specific expertise that I was hired for, and that was 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. I tried building a personal relationship at work with her to kind of build that connection. 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 that 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. Put me in the heart. I was so hurt by this. I tried so hard to work with her, and I was shook. Then, truth be told, I got a little ticked off. I mean, how dare she write, I’m just trying to help. This is my job. I’m an expert. I am bending over backwards trying to make this work, and this is what I get. I had to blow off that steam. Then I got to work. I enrolled in a difficult conversation program. I read up on emotional intelligence and decided I wanted to repair this relationship. I took accountability, swallowed my pride as hard as it was and I went back in. And this time I was able to get the relationship 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 relationship. How fun is that? I came out of that hurtful, kicking and screaming how dare she moment to being a role model and adviser for that same type of problem. So let’s get to it. I am going to share with you my approach and give you some resources at the end if you want to dig deeper. But know that 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. So first we want to shift from difficult conversations to learning conversations. When we go into a conversation expecting it to be difficult or thinking that it will be, we come from a place of right versus wrong, from blame. We get caught up in our feelings and emotions and almost go into 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 might 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 compromise that is win win. We have to remember that we all have unconscious bias. Even when you’re right, you’re only right to your brain. And 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 that each person is the same in that way. We all have our own thoughts and judgments we hold to be true and some of what we think is factual and some of it just isn’t. Even when it feels real, sometimes we can tell what is and isn’t and sometimes we can’t. It’s a bit like being in the matrix. So having that open mind going in will help you interpret 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 that 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?
So this can be a difficult step just to shift from this difficult conversation to learning conversation. And it’s something though that I just want to preface is just so important. Because if you think about it, in my situation, when I talked about the difficult person that I worked with, every time I went into a meeting with this person, I was thinking, oh my gosh, here we go. What’s going to happen this time? Am I going to be able to help her? Is she going to get crabby with me? How effective am I going to be? What am I going to do if she says this or does that? And when you’re going into a conversation thinking it’s going to be difficult, you’re already on the defense, right? You’re not thinking as clearly. You’re focused more about survival, getting through that conversation, maybe even winning that conversation. So you have to make that shift that going into the conversation. You’re not going to think about it. It’s difficult. You’re going to use it as an opportunity to grow and to learn. So 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.
We often have a feeling before we even notice the thought that’s occurring with it. And acknowledging that about yourself and about the other person can help you have a mutual understanding and kind of see the conversation differently. And there are several strategies that people use when it comes to emotion minimize, which is to make them feel small or dismiss the emotion, which is very common in the workplace. Maximize is to make the emotion feel really big and overwhelming and bypass to change the subject. You want to problem solve and fix the feeling rather than address it. And if you were to empathize it’s, to demonstrate an understanding of the feeling without agreeing to it, which is important, right? To practice empathy isn’t to agree with the other person or to admit defeat that your point of view is not valid or wrong, it’s just to understand their perspective. So in the work setting, you’re probably more likely to experience a minimisation of feelings, bypassing of emotion, and problem solving the emotion. Some would even say that emotions don’t belong at work, but that is just not possible because we are human. I think instead we need to understand that they do exist and we need to acknowledge that we’re human.
It doesn’t mean you have to cry in the office or ask someone to let it all out for you. It just means that even when people aren’t showing it or if you think that 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. And this is something that I work with my clients on in coaching is discovering your Personal Agile Emotional Intelligence rating and then learning how you can apply it to others as well so you can be as effective as possible. So we talk about how we as individuals respond to emotion on a personal level. And then also, what are some other ways that other people that you’re having challenges with, what are ways that they’re responding to you? And how can you understand and read them so that you can flex into what they need to build that relationship? It’s really cool work. So the third strategy is to listen. So 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, take some trust in 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. And finally, fourth, if this is a situation that you can prepare for, I highly recommend doing that. You can sit down before the learning conversation, no learning conversation, not difficult 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 is that they didn’t know my area of expertise, that it is my job to help her determine the right solution, and that she’s being disrespectful of me. So do a thought download on the topic what you think about it. Let it all out. Just let all of your thoughts flow freely without minimizing them, without filtering them. Just get all of that out of your head. And then ask yourself what data or evidence are you using to make your conclusion? Are your thoughts true? In my example, it was my identity, my job description, my assumptions about their experience.
So not really 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, does that mean I wasn’t an expert? Does that mean that 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 yourself what are you making this mean about you? What lens are you using? This is where I get into how this questioning of a project was really connected to me not feeling secure and what the questioning me was really about. I was connecting my self worth to this, which is why it was so 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 that what was more important for me was to have the relationship of trust and prove my expertise and baby steps to build that influence and partnership in the long term than it was to win everything I thought I was right about.
So 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? And what outcome do they want? Then you can take a look and do a gap assessment of where they are and where you are. And you’re doing all of this ahead of the conversation. You can then decide what you want to advocate for, what is important for you, the outcome you want, and go into the conversation with a different perspective. So, to summarize, you want to shift from difficult to learning conversations, practice emotional intelligence, listen and prepare for the conversation. Four steps. 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. I know sometimes we just catch ourselves in these difficult situations. We didn’t necessarily plan for them. So you can still shift to learning, you can still practice emotional intelligence, and you can still listen to the other person and seek to understand. Keeping in mind the preparation questions I shared with you, knowing that you may be bringing more than the facts to the conversation, you may also bring a story that you’ve created about what this really means about you.
So, if you want to dig deeper on this topic, I have three books that I would recommend. First is the program that I went through was based on the book by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patten and Sheila Hen. The authors are members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and the book is a New York Times bestseller. It’s called Difficult Conversations. It’s a quick read with some practical insights and examples. Secondly, I’d recommend the book emotional Intelligence 20 by Travis Bradbury 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 that you want to. It’s an international best seller. It’s pretty good. Then. Third, I would recommend leadership and self deception getting out of the Box by the Arbiter 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 the success and happiness that we want. So if you enjoyed this episode and you want more, I invite you to join my email list.
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