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7 Steps To Getting Through Difficult Conversations

Here’s how to check your emotions and work out a solution that lasts.

Many of us do just about everything we can to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Maybe someone isn’t doing their job, they’ve missed a bunch of deadlines, or they’ve been caught being dishonest–whatever the situation, even those of us who don’t consider ourselves nonconfrontational might dread having unpleasant talks.

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But the longer you avoid them, the longer the issue will fester. Rather than procrastinating, try this approach for having difficult conversations that not only don’t fly off the rails but actually lead to the changes you’re looking for.

1. Identify The Ideal Outcome

Most of the time, we enter tricky confrontations thinking about the motivating issue, not the solution to it. So before you even approach the person you need to speak to, consider what you want to accomplish. Is it better performance, more accountability, a change in attitude? Visualize the ideal outcome, and then work your way back from there. What do you need to do to move the conversation in that direction? This may sound obvious, but the stress tough conversations can cause sometimes makes this principle easy to forget.

2. Check Your Emotions

Make sure the conversation isn’t about venting your own frustrations. If you need to practice, have a mock conversation with someone you trust like a family member, colleague, or friend. Have them push back at you and get defensive. Make sure you won’t be triggered into anger by any resistance you might encounter during the real thing.

3. Stick To The Facts

Once you’ve got your emotions under control, do your homework. Pin down as objectively as you possibly can what actually happened that led to the issue at hand and the consequences that followed.

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For example, because your team member or colleague missed a certain deadline, the order was lost and the company is in danger of losing a customer. Don’t focus on how that makes you feel, and don’t make any judgments about why the person you’re confronting might have dropped the ball. Leave that part for them to tell you. Present only the facts, and make sure you’ve got them right.

4. Listen Actively

This is arguably the most difficult step. We all have preconceived notions about people and why they act they way they do. That can get in the way of a productive conversation. So pretend you’ll be tested after your chat on how well you can repeat what they say. Fight the urge to jump in and contradict them, even when they get a fact wrong. You’ll have a chance to correct misperceptions, but you need to listen first. Pay close attention not only to words but also to tone of voice and body language.

5. Repeat What You’ve Heard And Ask For Clarification

In order to make any real progress, the person you’re speaking with needs to feel heard. That doesn’t mean they need to feel you agree with their point of view, just that you fully understand what it consists of. You could say, “What I heard you say is that_________. Is that right?”

6. Solicit Solutions

Based on the ideal outcome you pinpointed from the very beginning, ask your listener to make the changes you believe would prevent the issue from continuing—don’t demand them. Then ask what they think needs to change in order to reach a solution.

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There’s no guarantee that the other person will be open, non-defensive, and willing to adapt. But if your conversation has gone well up until this point, the chances that you’ll be able to hash out a good resolution are much greater.

7. Get Down To Brass Tacks—Together

As you trade ideas on solutions, it’s important not just to consider the problem you are dealing with right now but also future scenarios that are likely to occur. Try to come up with a means for resolving similar disputes that you both agree on. And go beyond generalities to find concrete actions and behavioral changes to implement. Underscore sincere comments by the other party or actions they committed to, and let them know you appreciate them for cooperating.

If the conversation begins to break down, or if either of you starts getting frustrated, take a break and start over later. Trying to press on after emotions have boiled over will only make the situation worse. Of course, there’s never a guarantee you’ll get the outcome you’re looking for. It starts with recognizing that you can’t control someone else’s thinking and shouldn’t try to. But if you can follow these steps, you’ll be able to walk away from the process–no matter the outcome–knowing you gave it the best shot you could.

About the author

Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert, author and speaker. To take the EI Quiz go to theotherkindofsmart.com.

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