10 Steps on How to Have Difficult Conversations Without Being a Jerk

10 Steps on How to Have Difficult Conversations Without Being a Jerk

Even day-to-day communication can be difficult and having those critical conversation require Herculean ability.  They are thorny, complicated and often messy. Critical, difficult, frightening, challenging, annoying, serious, tough, unpleasant, confrontational …whatever we call them they are conversations we don’t want to have. And how do we typically handle these conversations?  We do one of three things:  a) we avoid them totally and hope the problem goes away, b) we meet with the other person or persons involve and handle poorly or, c) less often we meet with the other person or persons and handle them well.  And often we meet with the person or persons involved, think they went well only to discover the same problem recurring.

So what are difficult conversations?  Here are some examples:

  • Critiquing a colleagues work.
  • Talking to a team member (or anyone) who isn’t keeping commitments
  • Terminating a relationship…personal or in business can be an employee, vendor etc.
  • Talking to a coworker (or family member) who is rebellious, disruptive or otherwise problematic
  • Talking to your boss about ethical challenges, i.e. the boss or company is breaking or bending their own rules
  • Discussing performance issues with a staff member, or even a vendor
  • Saying no to someone…setting the boundaries
  • Sharing with colleagues/staff about the less than stellar performance of the company and what this means to them
  • Discussing changes in compensation, benefits, role, responsibility…

Difficult conversations are anything where you have to discuss something with someone and the topic and discussion won’t make them happy, and will likely make them unhappy.

The first step is to shift our thinking about these interactions.  We have to shift from seeing them as confrontation to seeing them as conversations.  We often enter into these conversations assuming they will be confrontational, and guess what, because we think they will be they often are.  How might they outcomes be different if we aren’t assuming they will become confrontational?

Before you begin the conversation ask yourself “what is the issue I most want to resolve?”  For example, if you need to talk to someone about attendance is the issue that they need to show up on time going forward, change their schedule so they can always be on time or something else?  

Then clarify the issue for yourself (and ultimately for them).  How long has it been going on? How bad is it? What is the impact of the situation and what will happen if nothing changes?  Using the above example of attendance, is this a recent problem or long-standing situation? Is the reason you want it fixed just your personal preference or is it impacting others or violating a company policy?  These two steps help you determine what you want to say, but more importantly how significant the impact as, which needs to be included in the conversation.

Knowing you are going to have a difficult conversation means preparing, and not simply jumping in because you are frustrated or angry.  Emotions have no place in these types of conversations. Here are some steps to improve your communication skills and make difficult conversations less challenging.

1. Don’t ignore having them. Situations don’t go away because you ignore them, they simply get bigger and hairier and more difficult to deal with. And the longer it goes on the more your emotions will enter into your thinking and the conversation.

2. Share at the beginning that you know this will be uncomfortable or awkward. Pretending it won’t doesn’t make it easier for anyone. Saying some such as “I want to talk to you about (difficult subject) is an easy segue into the conversation.

3. Share your intentions or goals for the conversation.  Tell them this isn’t about scolding them or treating them like you are their mother (or father).  You want to have an open conversation about your views and assessment of the situation, and to give them space to share their thinking and feelings.  At the end you want to have an action plan, an agreement on next steps or whatever it is you want as the outcome.

4. Be specific, but not long-winded. A couple of sentences as the introduction of what you want to talk about and why it’s important to discuss. Too much detail and they will quit listening and begin to think about how to defend themselves. Not being specific enough confuses others and they won’t know what you want them to do differently.

5. Don’t blame or throw stones. If you want to diffuse people’s defensiveness you can’t blame, and you have to acknowledge their feelings and ideas. No one likes being accused or blamed, even if they caused a problem or did something significantly wrong. Remember how you say things is as important, often more important than what you say.

6. Deal with the root problem not the symptom. Is performance the problem or the symptom? Is it attitude or lack of understanding? If someone continues to have performance challenges talking to them isn’t likely to change anything. You have to determine do they not know what to do but are uncomfortable asking? Are they consistently interrupted by others throughout the day with requests and shifts in the scope or even the project? Is the communication clear or ambiguous so they think they understand but really don’t? Often we address what we think the problem is, but it is the symptom, and we wonder why nothing changes.

7. Listen, and consider the other person’s point of view. Consider the possibility that you might be in the wrong, or minimally be willing to see the other person’s point of view. It may not change the outcome you want (the end result of the conversation) but it will likely change the dynamics of the conversation. When others feel like they aren’t heard or respected they will shut down, and it will erode trust.

8. Be direct. Don’t treat these conversations like an Oreo cookie where you start with saying something nice about them, then get down to the ‘real’ conversation and end with something nice again. It confuses people. Get right to the point, being frank and respectful about the situation.

9. Watch body language. Someone who is looking down, unwilling to engage, appears anxious or uncomfortable…all of these are telling you something. Simply ignoring these and other signs and assuming you got your message across is silly.

10. Recognize barriers to successful communication. There are so many factors that go into successful communication, and when you are having difficult conversations they become even more critical to remember. Consider cultural and gender differences in how people communicate and receive information. What words are you using? Are their language barriers (if English is not someone’s first language for example).

You cannot guarantee that every conversation you have will be easy and produce the results you want. However, if you start off naming the conversation as ‘difficult’ and assume it will likely be confrontational it absolutely will.  How you approach the communication through the lens of difficult and confrontational is different than how you will approach it if you simply see it as a conversation and you expect a positive outcome. Whether you realize it or not, the outcome is often determined by you before you even meet with the other person.

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