Do you want to stop having “Difficult Conversations”? Part 2: 5 Top Tips


So, here we are again.  In Part 1, I wanted to get across the message that

“In this conversation, it’s not all about you; it’s about all of you that are in this conversation”

Whether you agreed with me or not, I’m sure it gave you some food for thought, about the need to think about the other people in the conversation.

So, what else can you do to ensure those Difficult conversations become as straightforward as possible?   Here are Five Top Tips which should make the boxing gloves unnecessary.

  1. Know what you want the OUTCOME of the conversation to be.  FOCUS on that.

    We don’t always have as much time as we would like to plan for some conversations; but there’s always time to take a breath and ask yourself “What do I want to achieve from this conversation?”.   Even if you’re not the one who prompted the conversation, you can still take a moment to ask that question. After all, if you don’t know what you want, how do you know whether you’ve got the right result?

    The next two tips will help you consider the elements that go towards knowing your outcome:

  2. Know what ACTION you want as a result of the conversation.
    Do the people you’re talking to need to DO something?  Do YOU? Make sure you all know WHAT it is, and WHEN it needs to be done, and WHO is responsible. Be specific. Check for understanding.  Most of us are probably familiar with SMART objectives, but have you heard of “PURE” objectives?  I find “PURE” really helpful:

    P = Positively stated 
    What you want. (Not what you don’t want)

    U = Understood  
    Ensure that you, and the others, really understand what this will look and feel like when it is achieved

    R = Relevant  
    Ensuring that the action is congruent with the desired long term outcome

    E = Ethical  
    The best way to ensure the highest standards of business integrity is to be explicit about conforming to the highest standards.  Think that sounds preachy? You only have to look at the recent whirlwind around News International and The News of the World to see the impact of letting ethical standards slide  

  3. Know how you want the other person to FEEL.  

    People may eventually forget what you say, but they alway remember how you make them feel.   In my experience a lot of the relationship breakdowns at work happen because we don’t think about this.  This was a real breakthrough moment for one of my coaching clients. He had a reputation for being very driven, and pretty fiery.  He got his message across, alright, but he left a few casualties.  Often his delivery was pretty brutal because he was feeling the pressure, and the person he was talking to experienced the fallout.  Later on, he would feel terrible about this but there are only so many times you can apologise and be seen to mean it, if you keep doing the same thing.  Once he started to consider how he wanted people to feel as well as what he wanted them to do, he found it much easier to have effective conversations and he built stronger working relationships.

    One of the worst meetings I ever had was one in which I was given an unanticipated promotion and an enormous pay increase!  I left feeling very downcast and wondering how on earth that had happened.  On reflection, I realised that my boss hadn’t thought through the impact of the messages she wanted to deliver.   I suspect that if she had switched the order, and told me about the challenges we faced, the huge raft of project work coming my way, and the opposition she believed we would face
    then told me about the faith she had in my ability to deliver, then used the news about the promotion and the pay increase to reinforce the message, I would have left feeling very differently.  I learned a lot from that meeting.

    Please note:  You can still disagree.  You can still let people know if there is a gap between your expectations and their performance!  Sometimes you don’t want them to go away feeling great! Sometimes you need them to really feel just how serious the situation is. However, I bet you want them to go away feeling able to do something about it. This isn’t about being a lovely fluffy toothless pet of a leader.  It is about being able to get your message across clearly and in such a way that the person you’re talking to feels able to act, and believes they have your support.  Show the people you work with respect, by being honest with them. 

  4. BELIEVE it is possible to reach a good solution

    Your belief about the conversation will have an enormous impact on the way the conversation goes.  This is not just about the power of positive thinking, although that’s important.  We act differently if we believe something is possible.  If you believe it is possible, you will keep looking for solutions until you find one.  You know there is a solution, you just haven’t found it yet.  Conversely, if you don’t believe it is possible, you will stop at the first hurdle.

    Still not convinced?  Ok, think about how this applies to sport.  If you play tennis and you believe you can win matches you will probably a) work to hone your technique b) work on your fitness c) eat well.  In doing these things, you will find that you start to play well, and you notice how well you are playing; this reinforces the belief that you can win matches and, lo and behold, you do!  Conversely, if you don’t believe you can win matches you may not work on your technique (after all, what’s the point?), you probably won’t bother to work on fitness and nutrition for the same reason.  You will notice that you find it pretty hard to get through a whole match, and you notice the bad shots you play: you reinforce the belief that you can’t win matches and, guess what? You don’t.

    The same applies at work.  Change your beliefs and you change your results.  There are a number of ways in which you can work on getting more helpful beliefs, including just choosing to adopt them.  Alternatively, act “as if” you have those beliefs.  (You’ll be amazed how effective that can be.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s there was a fierce rivalry between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe.  For some time Lendl was regularly beaten by McEnroe and dreaded playing him.  Lendl changed his approach; he chose to start saying how much he was looking forward to playing McEnroe – and started beating him.)

  5. Give up being “Right”…be “Curious” instead

    In some conversations you might really need to defend an ethical principle.  Standing up for what is legal or moral is one thing; being right just for the sake of proving you are right, is unhelpful.  If you go into your conversation seeking to understand the other person’s point of view you might just learn something useful.

“Being right implies someone else must be wrong.  This requires an enormous amount of energy.  It doesn’t mean you can’t have a point of view, you just don’t need to defend it all the time.  In defenselessness we find invincibility because there is no longer anything to attack.  Being right requires judgement and that can lead to arrogance, isolation, victimisation.  You see the world as you are, others see the world as they are too. Being open and curious to other people’s worlds means we can always learn more…”

Deepak Chopra


So in summary, if you go into a conversation knowing your desired outcome, (consider both actions and feelings), believe you can achieve a good solution and seek to understand the other person’s perspective you will really notice the difference from the old days, when you used to have “Difficult Conversations”.