The Art of Mastering Difficult Conversations

From colleague to colleague, partner to partner, function to function, a personal or a company’s success both in gaining value and maintaining relationships depends on how well you get the conversations right.

A difficult conversation describes a common dynamic in disputes – “The attitude of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong!” that lies at the heart of practically every position based dispute. I come across this on a daily basis, while getting and giving feedback.

Sometimes I fear the prospect of having the conversation and don’t get the message across. Sometimes I get the hard message across but I strain the relationship.

That set me thinking; there has to be a better way to have difficult conversations. 

What’s the best way to have difficult conversations? 
All of us face the tormenting situation of having difficult conversations, either at the giving end or receiving end. And more often than not, it leaves both parties unhappy and frustrated. As hard as they are, these conversations are necessary and it is all the more necessary to master the art of having those conversations.

Recently, I came across an article from Harvard Negotiation Project- Difficult Conversations. Peter Bregman ( Regular contributor to HBR), the author of the article, 'The Martial Art of Difficult Conversations', related a personal story to reflect on how to have conflict conversations, which I thought very well applies to business as well. Apparently, studies have shown that there is a health flip side to having failed conversations; they never make us happier, healthier or better off.

In short, Failed difficult conversations = much weaker immune systems Weaker immune system = poorer health Negative feelings = emotional pain = constant battering = unhealthy conversations = eats away our health.

Also, research shows that strong relationships, careers, organizations and communities all draw from the same source of power – the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics.

So, if you are someone like me who feels queasy about having difficult conversations, here are some quick tips to overcome that feeling. 

Few things to do (your sticky notes & reminders!) 
 Count to 10 - Pause before responding. No matter how difficult the conversation gets, make a practice of waiting several seconds before you reply.

 Ask lot of questions - If the person comes to you, ask lot of open ended questions. Who, what, when, where, how, why etc. Questions that would clarify what she was saying and feeling. Questions that would help unpack the situation from her perspective.

 Actually listen - Shut up and hear what she had to say. Avoid thinking about anything except what she is saying.

 Don’t get defensive - Most importantly, don’t defend decision until her anger is diffused. Once she is relaxed, you make your point.

 Repeat & summarize - Recap what you heard, using the same words she did. Also, summarize what you heard and check with her to see if you understood her correctly. The goal to an uncomfortable conversation is to have a comfortable finish. I find it also helps to remember that understanding isn’t the same thing as agreeing.

While I am communicating with clients both face-to-face and online, I practice listening. If you can master listening, you’ll command respect and be a master communicator and hard conversations won’t be that difficult at all.

The reward for learning to master these hard conversations is much better results and stronger business relationships! 

So let me know if any of these tips helped you having a comfortable hard conversation! 

‘Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment’ – Benjamin Franklin

Shilpa Sunderraj

From colleague to colleague, partner to partner, function to function, a personal or a company’s success both in gaining value and maintaining relationships depends on how well you get the conversations right.

A difficult conversation describes a common dynamic in disputes – “The attitude of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong!” that lies at the heart of practically every position based dispute. I come across this on a daily basis, while getting and giving feedback.

Sometimes I fear the prospect of having the conversation and don’t get the message across. Sometimes I get the hard message across but I strain the relationship.

That set me thinking; there has to be a better way to have difficult conversations. 

What’s the best way to have difficult conversations? 
All of us face the tormenting situation of having difficult conversations, either at the giving end or receiving end. And more often than not, it leaves both parties unhappy and frustrated. As hard as they are, these conversations are necessary and it is all the more necessary to master the art of having those conversations.

Recently, I came across an article from Harvard Negotiation Project- Difficult Conversations. Peter Bregman ( Regular contributor to HBR), the author of the article, 'The Martial Art of Difficult Conversations', related a personal story to reflect on how to have conflict conversations, which I thought very well applies to business as well. Apparently, studies have shown that there is a health flip side to having failed conversations; they never make us happier, healthier or better off.

In short, Failed difficult conversations = much weaker immune systems Weaker immune system = poorer health Negative feelings = emotional pain = constant battering = unhealthy conversations = eats away our health.

Also, research shows that strong relationships, careers, organizations and communities all draw from the same source of power – the ability to talk openly about high-stakes, emotional, controversial topics.

So, if you are someone like me who feels queasy about having difficult conversations, here are some quick tips to overcome that feeling. 

Few things to do (your sticky notes & reminders!) 
 Count to 10 - Pause before responding. No matter how difficult the conversation gets, make a practice of waiting several seconds before you reply.

 Ask lot of questions - If the person comes to you, ask lot of open ended questions. Who, what, when, where, how, why etc. Questions that would clarify what she was saying and feeling. Questions that would help unpack the situation from her perspective.

 Actually listen - Shut up and hear what she had to say. Avoid thinking about anything except what she is saying.

 Don’t get defensive - Most importantly, don’t defend decision until her anger is diffused. Once she is relaxed, you make your point.

 Repeat & summarize - Recap what you heard, using the same words she did. Also, summarize what you heard and check with her to see if you understood her correctly. The goal to an uncomfortable conversation is to have a comfortable finish. I find it also helps to remember that understanding isn’t the same thing as agreeing.

While I am communicating with clients both face-to-face and online, I practice listening. If you can master listening, you’ll command respect and be a master communicator and hard conversations won’t be that difficult at all.

The reward for learning to master these hard conversations is much better results and stronger business relationships! 

So let me know if any of these tips helped you having a comfortable hard conversation! 

‘Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment’ – Benjamin Franklin

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