Make It Easier To Have a Difficult Conversation

Being a manager means having to have difficult conversations sometimes.  The most common type is the "you need to do things differently" conversation where you have to give feedback that an employee might not want to hear.  Other not-so-fun conversations might include: working through inter-team conflict with a fellow manager, disagreeing with your boss's decision, and telling a client they can't have what they're asking for.  Regardless of the topic, these conversations are not fun and can be the source of a lot of stress.  Here are a few tips to make the discussion slightly easier.

Focus on the problem to be solved, not the person who seems to be causing the problem. 

One of the quirks of human nature is that we attribute things to character that are often more the result of circumstances.  Viewing the person as "difficult" will make it hard to have a good conversation with them.  How do you reason with an unreasonable person?  People are capable of more than we give them credit for.  Don't cheat yourself or the other person by writing them off before you've even tried to work together on a solution.  (This applies even if they refuse to work with you: if you escalate the problem upward, it's important to frame things based on the situation and the behavior rather than the character of the person involved.)

Get clear about your goal. 

What do you want the other person to know, feel, and do as a result of the conversation?  For the last part, it's important to identify concrete, specific behavior(s).  This will help you to communicate more clearly, and it will also help you to determine whether your goals are realistic.  "Be reasonable" is not a behavior that a person could implement, even if they wanted to; "refrain from asking my direct reports for unallowable discounts going forward" is.  Be careful in situations where your goal is to get the person to apologize and/or acknowledge that they are wrong and you are right.  If there isn't a connected behavior that you also want them to change, does it really make sense to go down this road?

Try to see things from their point of view. 

Why would a normal, reasonable, thoughtful person operate in this way?  If you start with the assumption that the other person means well and is doing the best they can with the information they have, it will help you to understand where they're coming from.  This can help de-escalate the situation a bit for you, since we usually judge others' behavior through our own lens when in fact they are operating from an entirely different framework, and it will also help you open the conversation in a way that makes the person want to listen to you.  

Identify what might motivate the person to listen to you and (hopefully) to do what you are asking of them. 

What positive things will they receive or negative things will they avoid by engaging in this conversation with you?  Managers often think about giving negative feedback to an employee as a punishment, but in fact giving the employee accurate information about how they can be more successful is a gift.  Discussion process failures with another team leader can help that leader's team to achieve their objectives and be less frustrated.  Helping a customer to understand what the options are can help them to make more informed decisions going forward and feel that they can trust you.  The more you focus on what the other person can get from the conversation, the easier it will be for you to actually have the conversation because it will become clear what is to be gained by both of you.

Make it safe for them to be wrong. 

If you want the other person to come around to your point of view, it's important to make sure you don't make them feel attacked.  When people feel threatened, their first priority is to protect themselves rather than to listen.  This is where your efforts to understand their point of view can be helpful.  If you convey to them that you know they mean well and are doing the best they can with the information they have, that will make it more appealing for them to "come over" to your point of view.  

Conversations where you have to deliver messages that people don't want to hear are always going to be a bit tricky and stressful.  By changing your mindset a bit and trying to find the win-win aspects of having the discussion, you will not only improve your ability to manage conflict but also your relationships with your key stakeholders.  

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