Recently I was reading an article about how a manager prepared for some difficult conversations that she needed to have in her workplace.  The manager talked about the benefits of preparation, being clear about the situation, the importance of listening and seeking clarity before developing an action plan as well as being solution-focused throughout the process.  As I read through her approach, I thought about the similarities with mediation processes that I had conducted and been involved with when I was contracted to the Dispute Resolution Centre many years ago.  Preparations for those processes involved actively thinking about the issue from the other person’s perspective – because the reality is that there are always two perspectives.  Sometimes it was easy for people to acknowledge the other person’s point of view; other times, it was impossible to do.  Watching people process something as seemingly simple as acknowledging the other person’s point of view was always fascinating to witness.  Often the issue was about a perceived loss of face or loss of personal power on the matter.   And, of course, sometimes the underlying problem was a whole lot more complicated than that.

Reflecting on the issue of preparing for difficult conversations in my auditing work, I thought a lot about the importance of how the discussion needs to be conducted. For example, being mindful of my body language, checking my tone and pitch, as well as considering what happens for me and my thinking when I can feel a flush come on.  To be honest, the flushes always annoy me – and I can’t always blame menopause for having them!  The reality is, the flushes let me know when my feelings are being triggered, and I need to own that with whomever I am talking to.  Sometimes by acknowledging the glow and joking about it can work out well and relieve some of the tension.  However, there are times I would not say anything at all about the flush, particularly if other people are upset or are actively defending their position in the discussion. 

Within my work, I know that there have been many times I have put myself in the other person’s position, thinking about their organisation and how the person views what they are doing.  For some people, their organisation is their ‘baby’, their creation, something they identify very clearly with, so when difficult conversations need to be held about a particular issue, a good deal of sensitivity is also involved in how the discussion is broached.  Listening carefully in these situations requires not only listening through my ears but with my eyes, heart and spirit too, before seeking clarity for further understanding.  Sometimes the other person cannot listen or respond in any other way than what they are doing, because their own story is so very loud in their head.

Difficult conversations certainly need a lot of skills, patience and sometimes a good deal of bravery!  Often, I have found they happen without any time for preparation.  Of course, there are also times when I need to instigate difficult conversations for my situation and my daughter.  Funny how I can instigate and conduct difficult conversations with other people, but preparing for this sort of communication close to home can be quite draining.  Surely if I could twitch my nose like Samantha in ‘Bewitched’, all would be well, and the problem would just go away by magic?  I know that is taking the easy way out, mostly because I don’t always feel brave all of the time.  However, there are times when taking a stand must be done, for the right reasons and when enough is enough, but always with a solutions-oriented approach.  I know that people are doing the best they can with what is happening for them at the time and preparing for a range of points of view helps me to be ready for perspectives I hadn’t considered.  Respect is vital in this preparation, as is the ability to acknowledge that I have stuffed up too.  After all, I am as human as the next person!

However, going through difficult conversations and honestly reflecting afterwards on what went well and what didn’t can provide many insights into what I need to do to refine these skills continually.  For me, it also comes back to the intention I have behind my approach when conducting difficult conversations: if the purpose is sound. For the right reasons, then even if the conversation goes pear-shaped, I can walk away knowing I tried my best – which is all any of us can do, isn’t it?

Thinking ahead:

  1. What are the steps you follow when preparing for difficult conversations?  Do your actions always work?
  2. How do other people in your life respond to the way you prepare for these sorts of conversations?  Is there anything you have learned from these people that you now bring to the process of conducting difficult conversations?
  3. What happens if you actively remove yourself from having difficult conversations?  What impact does this have on other people?