3 Tips to Keep Difficult Conversations on Track

Many of the people I know and work with will do anything to avoid difficult conversations. It’s only human. Usually, it’s because we fear strong emotions might get triggered and we’ll end up ruining an important, if currently strained, relationship.

That fear is genuine and real. If you’ve ever experienced an emotional hijacking – a sudden flare of strong emotions coming from the brain’s amygdala that derails any plans you had for a mutually satisfying outcome – then you know what I am talking about.

Rebecca Knight, in an article in Harvard Business Review, gives us pointers on getting what you need out of challenging conversations while still keep relationships intact:

  1. Change your mindset: If you’re gearing up for a conversation you’ve labeled “difficult,” you’re more likely to feel nervous about it beforehand. Instead, try framing it in a positive way. For example, instead of giving “negative performance feedback”, think of it as having a “constructive conversation about development”. Another example would be rather than telling your boss “No,” offer up an “alternate solution”. A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as a normal discussion.
  2. Breathe: The calmer you are, the better you can handle difficult conversations. Take regular breaks and breathe mindfully to refocus. This technique works well in the heat of the moment. If, for example, a colleague comes to you with an issue that might lead to a difficult conversation, excuse yourself first, get a cup of coffee or take a brief stroll, and collect your thoughts.
  3. Plan, but don’t script: To plan what you want to say, jot down notes and key points before you have the conversation. Drafting a script, however, is a waste of time. In the heat of the moment, odds are that your well-crafted lines will come across as staged and planned. Your strategy for the conversation should be flexible and contain a repertoire of possible responses. Aim for language that is simple, clear, direct, and neutral.

Sometimes emotions can get the best of us, but with a little awareness and preparation, you can avoid the risk.

What sort of preparation do you find helpful for difficult conversations? I’d love to hear from you; you can contact me here and on LinkedIn.