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Thriving During Difficult Conversations

Written by: Dr. Margaret Potter, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Have you ever had to deliver bad news or give feedback that you knew was likely to challenge or upset an individual? These are difficult conversations and if an individual perceives the cost to speak up will be great, they will often procrastinate or simply avoid having the discussion. While this means those involved may save face, failure to act can result in bigger communication issues down the track.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” So it is important to develop your ability to proactively have difficult conversations. For most people, the three main challenges are (1) to speak up and say what you need to; (2) to maintain control of your emotions, and (3) to deliver your message with clarity and confidence.

If you work in human resource management or a profession like medicine where you are expected to be able to break bad news and deal with people who may be angry, upset, or distressed, avoidance of a difficult conversation is not an option. However, if you lack relevant skills and experience or have not had appropriate role models to guide you, difficult conversations will be challenging and stressful.

Some valuable principles to aid you in having difficult conversations, include:

  1. Seek to build rapport as quickly as you can so that you can then focus on the key areas for discussion. If you spend too long getting acquainted, the valuable time you need to address specific points is reduced and you may find it harder to raise issues.

  2. Set ground rules at the start of the meeting and make sure you enforce them. This will ensure that both parties know what to expect. One important ground rule is to ensure both parties get the opportunity to provide their point of view without interruption.

  3. Remain calm and composed regardless of the behaviour of the other person(s). Too often when there is a clash, the escalating poor behaviour of one individual, which may include raising their voice, name-calling, standing over, finger-pointing becomes a stick of gelignite to the other person allowing things to get out of control.

  4. Demonstrate assertive behaviour, which should involve articulation of a clear message that is consistent, firm, and fair. A good outcome from a difficult conversation is one where both parties can have an honest and direct exchange in a cordial, respectful manner.

  5. Hear the other person’s perspective by listening to what is said, as well as how it is said (non-verbal behaviour). You may not agree with everything shared, but if you utilise active listening skills it demonstrates presence and is a sign of respect.

  6. Negotiate the best way forward so that you engage in collaborative problem-solving. This is more powerful than simply telling a person what to do as it is a two-way process and should involve follow up on what has been agreed.

  7. Take responsibility for your actions as while you cannot control the behaviour of the other person(s) during a difficult conversation you should be willing to take ownership of what you say, do and how you behave.

  8. Learn from your mistakes as no one is perfect and sometimes despite preparation, active listening and attempted collaboration things may not go as well as you had planned. Consequently, it is important to take time to reflect on where you can improve. Your goal should always be to take any useful learning forward for the benefit of future interactions.

Sometimes being successful in a difficult interaction is as much an art as it is a science, but if you can consistently apply the principles that have been outlined you will become more confident and capable. However, it is important to realise that developing the skillset that enables you to navigate difficult conversations takes time, effort and a commitment to reflective practice.

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Dr. Margaret Potter, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Margaret Potter is a highly respected educational leader and an internationally certified performance coach with more than 20-years of experience. She is Director of the TELL Centre, which provides short courses to support health professionals with their teaching, supervision and assessment activities. As a consequence of her PhD research on the patient-practitioner interaction in healthcare, Margaret is a sought-after speaker and expert on various topics associated with optimising communication. Her motto: Keep learning – keep growing!



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