The skills you need to hold a difficult conversation with care and consideration

People see feedback as negative when it doesn’t fit in with how they see themselves. This is true of all of us to a greater or lesser extent. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a difficult conversation many times in our lives.

We can expect the other person to try to show why our interpretation is wrong in a variety of ways. This can make us reluctant as managers and leaders to hold conversations which require us to give difficult feedback.

So, we might avoid the conversation altogether. Or we might play for time, letting the problem go on for too long. We might brave the conversation, only to water down the message in the moment, because we are so anxious about the backlash.

Here’s the thing. In pretty much all cases, the other person will need their standpoint and perspective on the issue to be heard before they can open their mind to doing things differently. So, it’s better to be prepared for that than to try to avoid it.

Conversations tend to happen on two levels. The first is about action and task and the second is about relationship.

Structuring a difficult conversation

Regarding the matter at hand. There are loads of tried and tested tools out there to help us make the conversation happen with the greatest chance of success. The set of rules I stick to, that help me navigate tough conversations are:

  1. Get clear on exactly what the issue is: a change in behaviour, or an improvement in performance, or both. Get clear enough that I can describe the change I need to see unambiguously and succinctly.
  2. Know what I think needs to happen and by whom and when including any resources and activities that need to be put in place for change to occur.
  3. Decide what next steps will be taken after the conversation, and what success will look like.
  4. Ask myself what is going to prevent me from arranging the meeting and delivering the message clearly and respectfully and deal with those obstacles.
  5. Clear my diary before the meeting and after the meeting so that I can compose myself ahead of time and take a moment after the meeting to reflect.

Three golden rules for holding the conversation

When it comes to relationships, and this is the most challenging part of a difficult conversation there are 3 golden rules:

Give plenty of time for the conversation.

The person before you will feel defensive if they hear something that doesn’t fit with their self-perception. You should expect this – it is only human. Be respectful and plan time for it.

Be a good listener.

Allow the person to talk – to offer reasons why the feedback isn’t accurate, or true, to ask for more examples, and to give their side of the story. This is a natural response and is a pre-cursor to being able to learn from the feedback.

Provide support.

Gently support the person in understanding what triggered or triggers the behaviour, and to recognise what the cause it. Assist the person to explore alternative ways of being or ways of doing things for the future and agree any next steps.

Preparing yourself for a difficult conversation

To handle the relationship side of conversations effectively, you need to be mentally prepared. Spend some time in preparing the conversation:

  • Reflect on what makes the conversation difficult and what feelings it brings up for you.
  • Ask yourself what assumptions you are making about how the other person may respond and remind yourself of the facts.
  • Consider the possibility that there is information you may be missing and ask yourself whether the other person had the tools and resources they needed to be successful.
  • Confirm your expectations from the conversation and identify what you can do make sure they are supported.

Do your prep, and then put yourself to one side. Go into a difficult conversation being prepared to listen. Connect to your colleague as a person. Remember all the good in who they are and focus on them. If you practice this way you will find your own anxieties will begin to recede.

Preparing myself this way helps calm the nervous system. It gives me the best chance of delivering difficult news with compassion and empathy I would want and need if I were receiving this sort of news. If you can hold a tough conversation with care and consideration, the chances are you will build trust rather than knock it down. And that is surely a win-win.