"We need to talk!" Preparing for difficult conversations
Whether it’s confronting an underperforming team member, discussing this year’s holiday arrangements with your in-laws or telling your teenage daughter that coming home three hours after the agreed time is not on, some conversations are not optional. But the sheer idea of bringing up the dreaded topic can cause such serious distress that we either brush things under the carpet or jump straight in to get it over with quickly. (Only to discover that both options tend to make things worse.)
When we’re expecting a less than smooth ride, taking a few minutes to think things through and prepare can change both the way the conversation goes and, more importantly, the outcome:
- Clarify the issue: What exactly has happened? Why is this causing difficulty? And for whom? What’s been everyone’s contribution to the situation (including your own)?
- Gain perspective: How much will this issue matter in three months’ time? And in three years? While something might seem monumental right now, most issues lose significance quickly.
- Reflect on your position: What outcome do you want from this conversation? Where are you able and willing to compromise and what’s non-negotiable? What worries you most about confronting the other person?
- Put yourself in the shoes of the other person: How do you think they feel about the issue? And about having the conversation? What reactions do you expect? What outcome do you think they will want from the conversation?
- Be a neutral observer: Consider what a neutral observer would see that might be difficult for you to acknowledge. What would they advise? Is there any common ground?
- Plan the logistics:Depending on the seriousness of the conversation, the water cooler or the supermarket checkout queue might not be the best place to tackle it. Make sure you have enough time and a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed.
This might look like a lengthy list, but in most cases we can mentally whiz through these questions pretty quickly. And if you find yourself spending more time working through these, it might well point to the fact that the issue on hand is indeed complicated, in which case preparation is all the more necessary.