Difficult conversations: Seek first to understand, then to be understood
All conversations work best when both parties feel respected and able to say what they feel needs to be said. However, creating an atmosphere where this is possible isn’t always easy. And without a doubt, the higher the stakes and the bigger the anticipated disagreement, the harder it gets.
Preparing for difficult conversations is key but when the time has come to talk, keeping in mind a few crucial points will help you to have a respectful and constructive conversation. And if common ground exists, it’ll be much easier to find.
- Be genuinely curious: Many disagreements stem from inaccurate assumptions and interpretations. Meeting the other person with a genuinely curious and explorative mindset changes the dynamics. Ask them what their views are. Be prepared to listen, and be possibly surprised, as you might learn things you didn’t know or expect. ‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood’ is a great phrase to keep in mind.
- Avoid blame: Whatever has happened, looking for whose fault it is will only block the path to finding a common way forward. As the one blamed feels backed into a corner, you can expect defensiveness and possibly aggression. So instead of pointing the finger, concentrate on finding common ground and discussing where to go from here.
- Always play the ball, never the player: Have you ever witnessed an argument that started around who’s taking out the rubbish and quickly escalated into a series of nuclear attacks and counter attacks on everything the other person stood for? Using a small argument as an opportunity for an all-encompassing personal attack creates winners and losers, but hardly leads to an agreed way forward. So never lose sight of what’s prompted the conversation, and stick to it.
- Acknowledge emotions: Difficult conversations are bound to get emotional from time to time. And whether it’s anger, cynicism, tears or rage – yours or that of the other person – emotions tell you that something’s going on that matters. So don’t ignore them, but acknowledge them.
- Breathe: When things get tough, try to pause and breathe calmly. Not only will it help you to reset and refocus, but it’ll also buy you a little time. Silence is your friend and might well be a welcome mini break for the other person too.
- Summarise outcomes: In an ideal conversation, you will reach a way forward that, even if not universally liked, will have been discussed and acknowledged by everyone involved. Make sure you summarise these outcomes, actions and agreements.
- Follow up: And finally, when all is said and done and the issue is off the table, make sure to have another unrelated interaction with this person before too long. Show them that just because one issue needed sorting out, it hasn’t impacted on your relationship.
About the author
Karin is a certified executive development coach. She offers a wide range of professional and career coaching services, helping clients to initiate and embed long term change and reach their goals. Based in London she coaches in English and German.
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