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A Short Guide to Difficult Conversations

A Short Guide to Difficult Conversations


“The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” – George Bernard Shaw





Are you avoiding a conversation you know you must have? Quite often it's because you don't know where to start. Here's a checklist of things to consider as you ap­proach that conversation you've been avoiding.

  1. Talk to yourself first
  • What do you hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • What would be your ideal outcome?
  • Can you adjust your attitude to expecting a positive outcome?
  • What emotions are you feeling abut this situation?
  • Will you be able to keep those emotions under control?
  • What assumptions have you made about the person and/or the situation?
  • Do they know there’s a problem?
  • Is there anything else you need to know before you start this conversation?
  • Should you speak to someone else first, or get help?
  1. Write an agenda for the conversation
  • This may be just for your own reference. Look at the points in the next section for ideas on what to include.
  • Remind yourself to stay centred [sic] and fo­cused with your full attention on the discussion.
  1. Choose an appropriate time and place
  • Ensure no interruptions or distractions (switch mobiles off).
  • Privacy is also important.
  1. Prepare and practice
  • If possible, practice with someone else. At the very least run through the conver­sation - and the likely responses of the other person - in your head.
  • Be prepared for a range of possible reac­tions including tears, anger, blaming and silence.
  • Now you're ready for the meeting, so let's look at what's needed for it to run smoothly.

Clarity of purpose: Know why you're hav­ing this conversation and what outcome you wish to achieve.

Curiosity and a willingness to listen to ev­erything the other person has to say. You don't know their perspective on the issue and this is your chance to find out. This may require you to put your ego to one side and really listen to what they have to say, without interrupting and disputing their views. Be aware of what their non­verbal communication is telling you, too.

Acknowledge the other person's view­point. You can show you understand what they're saying by restating it back to them. To acknowledge doesn't mean you agree.

Take your turn to express your perspec­tive, so that your position on the issue is clear. While it is good to put words to your emotions (for example “I feel angry that we’re in this situation”), avoid acting in an emotional or angry way.

Work together on a solution. You may al­ready have an ideal solution in mind, but it's worth asking first what the other person would suggest. Keep an open mind and if you feel you're being led off-track, go back to the beginning.

Agree and document what will happen next. This will include any changes to behavior, processes or performance. It's also im­portant to agree on when and how you will monitor the changes.

Above all, stay centered, stick to your pur­pose and be willing to consider alternative outcomes.


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