Difficult conversations are the ones that can define a person’s job — and, in many cases, his or her success. You won’t say exactly the right thing every time; no one does. But with a little courage and a lot of practice your dread can turn to appreciation for the exciting results that follow a communication breakthrough.
6 key lessons
1. Avoiding difficult conversations often makes bad situations worse.
A customer’s festering resentment isn’t going to go away; it’s going to get worse. So will a direct report’s boredom with his job, or a colleague’s anger that she didn’t get the promotion you did.
Worse, failing to communicate (and document) issues related to performance or behavior can put you and your company at risk in the unpleasant event of litigation. It’s that serious. If you ever have questions about what you are legally required to communicate, see your company’s HR rep immediately.
2. Your truth is not the truth.
Your perceptions and opinions are valid and important. So are everyone else’s. If you assume that your version of the truth is the only one that counts, or the only one that’s “right,” you will likely cause misunderstanding and resentment.
3. Conversations shouldn’t be confused with confrontations.
Are you itching to win an argument? Put someone in his or her place? Blow off some steam? If so, simmer down. You’re not a gladiator — you’re a manager. You’re supposed to be solving problems, not causing more anger and resentment.
4. If you want people to listen to you, start by listening to them.
It’s normal to worry about what you’ll say in difficult conversations. But your ability to truly listen to what others have to say will probably have a bigger impact on the outcome. Sparkling oratory is impressive, but a commitment to active listening is what really wins others over. We all want to be understood.
5. Difficult conversations get especially difficult when someone’s self-image is threatened.
Maybe one of your direct reports thinks of herself as highly competent, and being denied a raise puts this perception in question. Or maybe you believe that you’re laid back and funny, but your boss says your jokes are offensive. Those are inevitably going to be painful conversations. You can make them easier if you cultivate self-awareness and try to understand how a given situation might threaten someone’s sense of who they are.
6. Feelings shouldn’t be ignored — but are better described than packaged as blame or judgment.
Imagine if a colleague said, “I can’t believe you threw me under the bus like that in the team meeting!” You’d probably go on the defensive. But if the person said, “I was surprised and hurt by what you said in the meeting,” you’d be more likely to ask why and have a productive conversation. Both statements deal with feelings; the first comment is laced with blame and judgment, whereas the second is a description.