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7 ways to deal with difficult conversations

By Edward Vukovic
23 October 2015 | 1 minute read
Edward Vukovic

We all have an inner voice (mine sounds like Kelsey Grammer) that tells us, urges us to have a difficult conversation with someone – the type of conversation that would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else in our team immeasurably. But either fear of confrontation, apprehension or anxiety drowns out that inner voice and the conversation never happens.

Meanwhile, the offending individual continues doing what they’ve been doing and the whole team continues suffering in silence.

The consequences of not having the difficult conversation can be extremely costly. A recent US study found that one third of all employees reported dealing with conflict regularly, averaging almost three hours per week dealing with conflict.


The study also found that one in 10 employees felt conflict directly resulted in the failure of a project, while 22 per cent of employees reported that it led to illness and absence from work.

The reality is that at some stage in your career you will be confronted with the need to have the type of conversation that makes your stomach knot tightly and your palms glisten with sweat. It could be dealing with a customer complaint, providing negative feedback to a team member (the more personal it is, the more difficult it is) or letting someone know that their services are no longer required.

Handling this type of conversation requires a combination of skill, empathy and courage. Indeed, courageous conversations will help you build stronger relationships with your team, increase your influence and allow you to set clear expectations and standards with your team. Not dealing with them will have the opposite effect, and any damage to your team’s morale will be much harder to repair.

So knowing this, what can you do to improve the way you handle the dreaded difficult conversation?

1. Manage your emotions

Difficult conversations will often be emotionally charged. Emotions are highly contagious. Remaining calm and in control of your emotional energy will set the tone for the meeting, which will generally result in a better outcome. Remain grounded and focus on the outcome – you’ll have more chance of achieving it.

2. Seek a common goal

Before getting into the nitty gritty of the conversation, take a moment in the beginning to clarify the purpose of the conversation. Usually, people are striving for the same outcome but different perspectives, approaches, standards or expectations can lead to conflict. Being clear that you’re both seeking the same resolution will diffuse some of the tension right from the outset.

3. Just the facts, ma’am

When we’re overcome with emotion, our view is often skewed and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction or opinion. Clarify your opinion but be mindful of respecting the other person’s point of view. Avoid making things personal by pointing fingers, laying blame or attacking their personality. Use facts to address their behaviour and then listen to their reasons. Often you’ll find they may be experiencing some difficulty or personal crisis that is affecting their work.

4. Don’t speak, listen

Here’s a quick tip: avoid the temptation to do all the talking and race straight to solution mode. Instead of assuming things about the situation, try to understand the other person’s point of view. Listen and acknowledge where they are coming from. As stated in the previous point, we can never really be sure if there are other factors at play. As Stephen Covey says: “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.”

5. Look ahead

The best thing you can do during any difficult conversation is to remain focused on working towards an agreeable outcome and what needs to change or improve. Try to set clear expectations and ensure you document any agreements that either of you commits to.

6. Speak with authority

It’s often said the way you convey your message has an impact on your audience, regardless of the message. When engaged in a difficult conversation, speak with confidence and certainty. Remember to use powerful, positive language; it will have a positive impact on both the mood and outcome for both of. If confidence is lacking, fake it until you make it. The more practice you have, the more confident you’ll become.

7. Prepare relentlessly

Difficult conversations earn the title because they are just that. Similar to anything else in life, being good at them requires practice. Each new conversation will be easier than the one preceding it, regardless of the situation. Take the time to prepare so you get a better understanding of what is a successful outcome and then practice it with someone else. The more you do it, the better chance of success you’ll have.

Regardless of where you’re at in your career, it is inevitable that you will come across the need to have a difficult conversation that you probably won’t want to have. By preparing, being courageous and addressing issues as they come up you will build your influence, your impact and your career success one conversation at a time.

7 ways to deal with difficult conversations
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Edward Vukovic, content expert, Know Risk Network

Edward Vukovic, content expert, Know Risk Network

Edward is a content expert at the Know Risk Network. He has enjoyed navigating the risks associated with the twists and turns of a varied career in communications in a number of different industries, including the community sector, government and the finance industry.

Edward uses his unique understanding of the risks associated with life and its vicissitudes to help consumers and small business alike.

The Know Risk Network is a non-profit, entirely independent community education program designed by the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance to improve our understanding of practical risk management and insurance. It is supported by community and emergency services groups, risk experts, insurers and government.

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