Companies & Industries

Seven Tips for Difficult Conversations


Keep your goals realistic, give bad news up front, and get out of the "blame frame," advises Daisy Wademan Dowling

Posted on Getting Ahead: March 11, 2009 4:24 PM

I have to tell one of my long-standing suppliers that we're cutting back orders 50%. We're their biggest client—and I know it will be devastating.

The new hire worked all night on the presentation, but there were big mistakes in it, and I've got to tell her before she makes them again.

There's no way we're going to meet the deadline for producing the report our boss promised the Board—we just don't have the data yet. Someone has to talk to him before this whole situation blows up.

There are certain conversations all leaders dread: the ones in which we have to deliver bad news, discuss a sensitive or "political" subject, or talk about a project or meeting that's gone wrong.

The mere thought of having these difficult conversations fills you with anxiety, and distracts you from other work. You don't want to play the bad guy, and or have the situation to blow up in your face. As much as it's tempting, you don't want to just avoid the whole mess, either. You want to take charge and talk about it—effectively. But how?

One of the best business books I've ever read is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. It's a short, practical guide on how to talk about "what matters most"—even when the subject is really, really uncomfortable. In this crazy business environment, when you're having more difficult conversations than ever before, the tools the book offers are indispensible.

Here are some of my favorite, action-oriented tips:

Keep your goals realistic. You can't ever eliminate the stress you'll feel around telling your supplier you're cutting back, but you can reduce it. Spend your energy on preparation—focus on developing your specific script.

Give bad news upfront. Tough messages should be simply and clearly stated in the first sentence.

Adopt the "And Stance". Take control of the conversation by pre-empting distractions, objections and blame by using "and". "I know you worked all night, and I know you want to do well, and I know you just joined the company, and I know the graphics people sometimes get the data wrong, and I know I could have been clearer in my directions to you...." And, and, and.

Get out of the "blame frame." Each person involved in the situation has a different objective story about what happened. Your goal is not to judge who's right and wrong, it's to manage to better outcomes in the future.

Paraphrase. To create clarity and to let people know you're genuinely listening, summarize what they're telling you—and ask them to do the same.

Be prepared for bad reactions. Finger-pointing, denial, arguments and tears are all possible outcomes of tough conversations. You cannot control the other person's reactions, but you can anticipate them, and be emotionally ready.

Pretend it's 3 months or 10 years from now. Put the difficult conversation in perspective by thinking about the future. The conversations that are hardest right now will seem less daunting.

What kind of difficult conversations are you grappling with—and how are you dealing with them successfully?

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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