How to have a Difficult Discussion
Updated: Jun 27, 2019
We often find ourselves facing difficult discussions in our business relationships
Regardless of the difficult substance & nature of such discussions, here are simple points to keep in mind when having them:
Connect & Relate
More often than not, both sides will be apprehensive, nervous and tense starting the difficult discussion. To avoid a contentious encounter it is imperative to connect and make the other side feel comfortable. Start by noting common ground and any touchstones of goodwill. One effective technique is to use stories and analogies for relaying your perspective and experience of the point of discussion. By relating to the other side, you open the doors for honest and open communication, which is an essential foundation for difficult discussions.
Once you are able to invigorate the connection, then it is important to engage in genuine and clear communication. Be honest with the other side and yourself by communicating concerns in a non-judgmental way. Do not use sugar-coating and appeasing comments, and be up-front and direct with the other side.
To build momentum for the communication and develop progress, take time to truly listen with an open mind and heart. Listen to what is being said in the moment, while resisting the urge to simultaneously formulate a response. If you are trying to think two steps ahead while the other person is talking, you risk missing important details as well as being disconnected to the emotional facets of the difficult discussion. Ask open-ended questions and make sure you clarify what you understand the other person is saying.
Effective listening also requires “hearing” in-between the lines and the ability to pick up on what isn’t being said through feelings and nonverbal cues. This is especially true when having difficult discussions. For instance, pay attention to when the other person tenses up or draws inward while talking; this could indicate discomfort or perhaps even an omission of facts the person considers embarrassing or unfavorable. Be in tune to make sure you remain focused on gaining a deep understanding of what is being said and stay dedicated to whole-hearted listening throughout the entire difficult discussion.
Emotional reactions can escalate quickly during difficult discussions. Understand that if you or the other side gets upset, such moments of heightened sensitivity will likely lead to escalation and strain the already difficult discussion. It is important to remain in control of both your feelings and response to the other side’s emotional responses. Stay centered and calm, while controlling the discussion by setting an example with your demeanor. If you lose control, which is normal, regain composure by focusing on your breathing and taking slow-deep breathes.
You can support the other side remaining calm by slowing down and reminding the other person to speak slowly to optimize the discussions. Ask what you can do to help, enabling your counterpart to regain their composure and get them into rational thought. Start sentences with “I’d like…” and give the other person space to express themselves fairly. Ultimately, account for and be mindful of the many turbulent emotions involved with difficult discussions.
Lastly, it is important for any difficult discussion to always keep sight of the goal. Be intentional with a clear, realistic outcome, the knowledge of how you want your relationship with the other side to be, and careful thinking about any obstacles that could interfere. Keep the discussion moving forward and foster brainstorming by creating an environment of joint problem-solving. It will take concentration and effort to identify & emphasize the areas of agreement, so you can move to joint problem-solving.
Approach the difficult discussion as an act of joint problem-solving: What are the critical issues at hand, what are my interests and their interests, and what are some different possible options for satisfying those various interests? The outcome of a joint problem-solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies. Set a schedule for checking in on action item progress and be sure to thank the other side and express a desire for the relationship to improve.