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Staying Grounded in Difficult Conversations

Think for a minute about the difficult conversations you have had or avoided over the last month.  You know — the conversations where you really needed to give someone bad news, talk about something awkward, give unwanted critical feedback, receive unexpected critical feedback, negotiate a tricky project timeline or budget, sort out a boundary issue, tell someone “no”, or work through a conflict you’ve been trying hard to avoid for at least the last six months.

Whatever the topic is, you know you are in a difficult conversation when you . . .

  • would willingly walk ten miles out of your way to avoid it
  • feel like a gunslinger showing up for a battle
  • are at a loss for words and notice your palms are sweaty, your heart is racing, and you cannot figure out a reasonable path forward

Staying grounded in a difficult conversation may never be easy, but we can learn to hang in there and manage our end more assertively and gracefully.  If improving with this skill set will help you do your best work and live your best life, here are three things you can do right now that will help you in your next difficult conversation.

1. Consider the ways that difficult conversations predictably go off-track for you and identify patterns of where you get stuck.

For example, do you:

  • Avoid the person and/or the conversation, only to have the problem escalate as time goes on
  • End up on the receiving end of critical feedback when the intention was to give it
  • Get side-tracked and defensive in the conversation, losing focus on what needs to be discussed
  • Become defensive and angry and use your positional power to “fight back” and put the other person “in their place”
  • Give in, accommodate or let the other person “win” in the moment, all the time knowing that the problem issue is still a problem

2. Know what “triggers” you in a difficult conversation and what you might say or do that will not serve you well.

For example,

  • the other person cries and you back off, give in, end the conversation, etc.
  • the other person gets angry and verbally aggressive and you react in kind
  • the other person resists discussing the problem with you, and you move toward pushing a “do this or else” solution

3. Now that you’re clear on what you might say or do that would not serve you well, identify what you can do that would work better. Do those things instead.

The following behaviors are good choices for staying grounded and moving the difficult conversation along in a positive direction.

  • Listen well to the other person’s position
  • Paraphrase for understanding and see if you heard correctly
  • Check your perceptions and assumptions for accuracy
  • Be mindful of your “end in mind” goals for the relationship and the conversation you are having
  • If you make a mistake, own it in the moment and move on
  • Avoid “either/or” thinking and present your own ideas and feelings clearly
  • Hang in there and do your best to show respect for the other, and for yourself as well. You may not get through a difficult conversation in one meeting.  Make a plan together to keep at it until everything that needs to be discussed has been resolved.

Remember – we learn as we go.  The goal is progress, not perfection.

Ginger Ward-Green

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