Difficult conversations is often used as an umbrella term to refer to interactions we are ambivalent about or fear how they will impact future relationships. In the absence of certainty, such conversations may therefore be postponed, rushed or avoided altogether. And yet when communicated and handled respectfully, differing perspectives can yield positive transformation for both individuals and organisations. A change in our own behaviour can significantly influence the behaviour of others.
Navigating this page
This page is split in to three sections. The sections build insight about the core skills required, expanding your thinking and application in the context of workplace scenarios. As we are all at a different places in our development journey, each resource has been selected to stand alone, and you are not required to engage with all of the resources, or to do so in a particular order. You are free to dip-in to suit your needs.
Reflective questions encourage you to reflect on your learning to help consolidate insight and prepare you to implement the actions to achieve your goal(s). Reflective questions may also highlight areas where you would benefit from additional support. This may include exploring your thoughts with a trusted conversation partner or coach, to support you in deciding on your next steps.
Core Skills: The heart of difficult conversations; Dimensions of communication; Preparing for a Difficult Conversation; Emotional Intelligence.
Development: Examining your assumptions; Transforming a difficult conversation into a learning conversation; Holding the conversation: equality makes all the difference.
Expert/ Expand your thinking: "Own Your Behaviour, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success", Example scenarios on giving feedback and well-being conversations,
Generic reflection questions:
What have I learnt today?
What are my main areas of strength in difficult conversations?
Where might I need to develop further?
What steps am I going to take to be the difference I want to see?
Self-reflection: We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. Take a few minutes to reflect on what your version of ‘tough’ is, by completing this self -assessment.
Not just what we say in the conversation will influence the conversation as it unfolds; how we say it is just as key. Timing, pace and tone of voice as well as gestures or body language set the scene and communicate just as powerfully as the words themselves. Our brains instinctively registers non-verbal communication, and the flight-fight response is easily triggered when there is a perception of threat. When cortisol is released, we are more likely to operate agressively and think less calmly, raising the level of conflict. The resources below will help you recognise the dynamic nature of communication and the watch-fors to help you prepare for your next conversation.
Reflection: As you bring the difficult scenario to mind, pause to reflect in the mirror and notice what you are doing with your hands, where your eyes are focused and your body posture. What is this telling you? How might you be received? Ask a trusted individual to offer feedback on your non-verbal communication to broaden your awareness, and consider what you may need to be do differently to help get the conversation off on the right track.
Complete this worksheet to help you reflect and prepare for the conversation.
In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Stone, Patton and Heen set out an approach to enable both individuals to emerge with a stronger sense of trust in each other and their relationship. To achieve this, we need to shift attention from 'message delivery' to a 'learning stance.'
Feedback and well-being conversations are a case in point: creating a dialogue where there is room for both parties to share their views and concerns provides a platform for mutual understanding and joint action-planning. The resources below will help you to approach and facilitate these types of conversations with greater confidence and ease.
Activity: Watch this video from ACAS and see how one Manager fed-back to his colleague regarding her performance. How would you structure feedback more effectively using the AID model?
You can also go back to "Core Skills section" to review the Top 5 Difficult Conversation Mistakes to help you identify what could be done differently to help strengthen the continuing relationship.
Expand your thinking...
When preparing for a difficult conversation, it is vital to bring to awareness the assumptions you are holding that are influencing your approach; assumptions that may be causing you to feel a particular way about the other individual or the situation, and in turn impedes your ability to engage without defensiveness or aggression. Start with "I" to own thoughts and perspective and be mindful of where assumptions fill the gaps in your understanding.
Explore Chris Argyris' model, The Ladder of Inference, to learn more about the psycholgical process we go through when receiving information and how we justify our actions based on the beliefs we draw from our conclusions.
Reflection: For a deeper dive, work through a series of videos on Transactional Analysis here. Learn from the work of Eric Berne in his book ‘The Games People Play’ to identify and understand the impact that ‘ego state’ has on interactions and how they unfold. Consider what ego states you adopt at different times and in different scenarios. Reflect on the influence non-verbal communication has and how it may trigger a ‘crossed’ rather than complementary ‘adult to adult’ transaction. A win-win situation is more likely to result from two individuals working to problem-solve together.
Work through the guided questions to help to prepare to open up a conversation that encompasses learning their story, expressing your feelings and problem-solving together. And finally, a plea from the wisdom of Susan Scott in her book, Fierce Conversations: may email be our last choice, favouring results over efficiency.
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Feedback provides fuel for growth therefore we would like to hear from you to understand how we can further develop the content so if you have any suggestions or questions email us: development.od