Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

In a nutshell

1. What makes a conversation difficult?

There are two key elements that make us dread certain conversations:

  • Fear
  • Embarrassment

What kind of conversations are we talking about? In general, they involve

  • Money or redundancy
  • Bereavement
  • Harassment or bullying
  • Hygiene
  • Incompetence


2. Why bother?

It is a good idea to remind ourselves of the consequences of not having the conversation by asking four very powerful questions:

  • What would happen if I did have that conversation?
  • What would happen if I didn’t?
  • What wouldn’t happen if I did?
  • What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t?


3. Preparation

Being prepared is crucial to the conversation’s successful outcome. Seven steps will help:

  • Think about it more positively, rather than as ‘difficult’
  • Consider how to deliver the message – face to face is usually best
  • Clarify what you want from the conversation
  • Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Practise opening words and possible responses
  • Anticipate concerns and questions
  • Practise your close


4. The when and where

The issues of the timing of the conversation and where it will take place are a vital part of the equation and need consideration beforehand.


5. How to get started

There are various ways to open such conversations and if you get this part right, the chances are the conversation might not be so difficult after all.

  • It can be a good idea to gently ease into some topics rather than launching straight in and an element of small talk can be helpful to put the person at ease.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with your role in the conversation, you could say so; knowing that you too are uncomfortable can strangely help the other person!
  • If you have issues with a boss who has not been a good boss to date, it is imperative to address them first with that person.
  • If you are taken by surprise, stall the person to give yourself time to handle the conversation competently.


6. The importance of rapport

The power involved in letting someone know that you empathise with them cannot be underestimated.

  • Building rapport doesn’t mean that you have to like or agree with another person’s take on a situation or a topic.
  • To show empathy you have to stop and listen to their point of view and respond accordingly to clarify the meaning.
  • Listen properly: we all need a ‘good listening to’ every once in a while – and especially during a difficult conversation.
  • Matching or mirroring the other person’s body language more closely (doing it extremely subtly, without mimicking them and without them noticing) can help put them at their ease.


7. Handling the emotional side

What happens if it all goes wrong (according to you) and the other person becomes upset? It’s imperative that you consider in advance how you will deal with the other person’s reaction to what you have to say.

  • Taking time out can help you or the other person.
  • Focusing on facts, and what you want to have happen, makes it easier to stay non-emotional.
  • It is important to empathise with the other person if they are getting angry or upset.
  • Emotional self-awareness, knowing and understanding your own emotions, is essential to understanding your impact on others. You also need to be able to recognise your own emotions so that you can recognise them in others.


8. On the receiving end

There are various things that you can do to be prepared should you be invited to have what you believe will be a difficult conversation.

  • You don’t have to be put ‘on the back foot’, but can consider your options and reactions ahead of time.
  • Take your time when in the conversation and be solution-focused.


9. How to close

Knowing how to end a difficult conversation can often be as tricky as knowing how to start it. You need to consider

  • How to summarise what’s been covered
  • How to move to action if relevant
  • Referring to someone else, if appropriate
  • How to thank the other person for their time
  • How to follow up.


10. Ten tips for making it easier

Discover the secrets that make those difficult conversations easier, such as

  • Know your outcome
  • Practise, practise, practise
  • Listen to understand
  • Build rapport
  • Be specific
  • Take solution-focused action.