Every one of us has an immeasurable number of challenging conversations throughout our lives. Often we avoid them, we delay them, or ignore them, hoping that they will stay put until we’re feeling more prepared. The good news is that you can master the techniques to learn to deal with them effectively and to make the most of the opportunity to dialog with people when it matters most.
Take a phased approach: Don’t think of a challenging conversation as one thing, think of it as many things that all add up to one thing. Realize that conversations have stages. A conversation might start out with a discussion about the situation or the problem that has arisen. This part of the conversation may often bog down into a pitched battle about the events, with combatants arguing bitterly over what happened, what is the current situation, and whose fault is it. How did we get into this mess? Be patient and let the discussion unfold without committing too quickly to a position you might not like later. Often, the next phase of the conversation is about how we’re feeling about what happened or what our current situation looks like. Be smart and patient enough to let the people you’re speaking with describe their feelings and share with you how intensely they feel about those situations and those emotions. Work hard to realize that you cannot see into someone’s soul and determine their motivations or intentions. You do not have an eternal ability to see the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The reality is that the truth is open to interpretation by anyone who happens along and shares the events. We all have to develop our version of the truth based on our experience and our beliefs and values. We cannot impose our truth on someone else. The final phase of the conversation is discussing options and solutions, and picking one as a go-forward strategy.
Place your feelings and best thinking about solutions on the table: The best we can hope for is a chance to dialog with people and try to come to some constructive shared understanding about what happened, what is the current situation, and then what would be a positive or largely positive outcome that the majority of us can live with. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t expect to win every conversation. Shoot for a win/win, and be candid and open with your thoughts about any reasonable solution. I have found that the more vehemently I espouse a certain position, the more the people I am attempting to persuade resist it. A great technique is to offer a potential solution, and take a soft approach without trying to sell it. If the idea is a good one, someone will want to select it. Pushing your ideas with too much intensity or vigor usually backfires. Be patient, and trust that the best ideas often rise to the top in their own timeframe. Listen to the ideas of others with an open mind, don’t be too quick to form opinions about new ideas, give them a chance. Recognize the role your feelings and emotions play in helping you or hurting your ability to consider new alternative options.
Don’t accept the False Logic of the “Either/Or” Choice: Many times solutions are positioned for us, by well-intentioned people as an “either/or” choice. Don’t fall for that logical flaw. Often, the two choices that are being presented as an either/or proposition are just two of 5 or 10 options that are in fact available. Politicians and Manipulative negotiators will often present a choice as a binary choice between good and evil or the lesser of two evils when many more and sometimes better options exist. Don’t settle, dig deep and try to determine if there is a third choice or more great choices than what you’ve been presented. Focus on understanding the other person in the conversation and seek to understand them at a profound level. Make sure that they know you are listening and that you intend to keep listening. Listen closely to the words they choose and pay close attention to the tone of their voice and to their body language as these often convey more meaning than the words that they have chosen. Be willing to accept that someone else sees things differently and avoid the temptation to place values on the positions. Just accept the differences and try to find common ground where you can agree to agree or agree to disagree with respect.
Engage in Problem Solving: By thinking that you’re all in this together, you will be better able to propose and accept solutions, than if you think of yourselves as adversaries. Engage in a purposeful effort to problem solve and explore solutions together. You don’t have to win every conversation. It’s OK to let someone else win now and again. Remember that strategically, sometimes it is wise to lose a battle in the larger effort to win the war. Be patient and wise and remain kind and respectful and things will usually go reasonably positively. Once a solution has been presented that gains the support of the majority, you then need to be a good sport and give it your full and enthusiastic support. Nothing irritates people as quickly as a sore loser. If you are a true leader, you can put your self-interest aside in the support of an idea that allowed your teammate to win.
Embrace the opportunity to engage productively in challenging conversations, knowing that while they will be difficult, you can master the ability to handle them in a very constructive and positive manner, and become the sort of person that people look forward to working with to solve problems. People who develop a keen ability to help resolve the difficult issues are sought out for their great conversational skills and problem-solving skills. Enjoy the Conversation!