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How I Navigate Difficult Conversations — And How You Can Too!

Remember what it’s like needing to have ‘that’ (challenging, hard, another synonym for difficult) conversation?

We all know the experience. It sucks.

Either you’ve offended someone or you’ve been offended. Maybe there’s some sort of conflict needing to be resolved, or someone has some serious beef for no apparent reason.

The fact that these kinds of conversations weigh on us proves to me just how much value we humans place on communication.

After working in management for a few years, I’m beginning to realize just how important the leadership skill of communication is.

I’ve had to learn (the hard way for sure) how to and how not to communicate effectively when it matters most.

Many of the principles and tools that I’ve implemented in my own communication are detailed in the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Highly, highly recommend.

Here are 3 key principles to navigate difficult conversations!

Start With You.

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Isn’t it just way too easy to point fingers? Before you enter into a difficult conversation, start with yourself. What role have you played leading up to this point? Believe me, honesty is the best policy, especially with yourself.

Have you ever had someone just completely unload on you? Some call that word-vomiting. I call that being rude. Also, it’s a clear sign of someone who lacks self reflection.

To start with yourself means you must take some time to really take a step back and reflect. What does reflection do? Reflection builds empathy for the other, begins to open up an experience and enables self transformation from it.

I was sitting in my office one morning and got a knock at the door. It was one of the other manager’s on my team. For the next five minutes she proceeds to vent to me about a situation she had caught wind of amongst one of our teams (a situation I was already handling).

Have you ever had those moments where someone is talking at you instead of with you? This was one of them. I was given marching orders as to how she felt I needed to resolve the situation.

Was I frustrated? Yup. Did I want to throw it back in her face that I had already handled it? Yup.

Instead, I received it, thanked her for her comments and took some time to reflect. She was out of line, no doubt. However my blowing up on her would only have made matters worse. I first had to check my emotions, get my intentions right and seek to see her side of the story. Once I had, I was able to approach a follow up conversation.

Starting with yourself is essential to approach conversations knowing that you are in a good place to do so!

Seek to Understand Before Being Understood.

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Once you’ve made it a point to really get your mind and heart to a place where you can have that difficult conversation, now what?

A key principle to move forward, especially before we come in guns-a-blazing looking to fix things, we must seek first to understand rather than being understood. Dr. Stephen F. Covey once said,

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

For most of us we first seek to be understood, selectively hear the other, pick up only on bits and pieces of what another is saying without any effort to step into their shoes. This can be very damaging to a relationship.

What do we do then? The authors of Crucial Conversations have four paths to powerful listening that can be remembered by the acronym AMPP:

  1. Ask — extend the invitation for the other to share first. “Would you be willing to share your thoughts regarding…”
  2. Mirror — actively confirming that you recognize the other’s feelings. “You seem upset when you speak specifically about..”
  3. Paraphrase - — this is the key trait of active listening. Simply, you relay back to the other what it is that you’ve just heard, and don’t be afraid to follow that up with a “Does that sound right to you?”.
  4. Prime — this is for all of those conversations that are going nowhere in a hurry. You’ll from time to time find yourself making no progress. I’ve found that it’s because there is something deeper the other hasn’t yet expressed. I use the good ol’ “call out the elephant in the room” trick. “Based on what I am seeing and hearing from you, it seems like there’s more to the story. Am I wrong to say that?”

Find Resolution Together.

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My company has seen a lot of changes, shifting, and just making it up as we go over the last few weeks due to the recent coronavirus epidemic. The natural by-product of a lot of change very rapidly is fear, hysteria, illogical thinking and irrational decision-making.

One member of our team was very adamant when sharing his thoughts regarding a decision made by upper leadership and even came to the point of potentially walking away from the job because of it. I decided to take the situation head on and try to understand where he was coming from.

For the first 30 minutes of our phone call, it was pretty heated. Both of us went back and forth, doing a lot of talking with really minimal listening. Finally, I just said, “Hey man, we’re on the same team. I really want to understand what’s at the heart of this for you. I need your help on this.”

It was as if the atmosphere changed. The situation was no longer about either of us getting our thoughts out but rather finding common purpose and finding resolution to the problem together.

Health and human performance coach, Brad Stulberg says,

“In addition to its motivational power, when members in a team share the same purpose, that team transforms into a more effective, cohesive, and higher-performing unit.”

Great teams are comprised of members who share a common purpose. Same can be said about great relationships being comprised of individuals who pursue a common purpose in some way, shape or form.

The pursuit of said purpose will always be characterized by your ability to effectively communicate with one another. The conversation mentioned above became fruitful only when we both took our “critical” hats off and put on our “creative” hats. We were able to see the problem in a different light through communicating around a common goal.

Communication is essential to every aspect of life. It’s our main mode of being in relationship with another. With that of course comes the inevitable difficult conversations. When presented with them, apply these 3 key principles and watch your relationships thrive!



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