Communication skills

Tips for having those difficult conversations

- October 17, 2012 2 MIN READ

Addressing issues with co-workers, clients and contractors is never easy, but there are ways to make those difficult conversations less confronting and result in a better outcome.

We’ve all been there – times where we’ve had to have those difficult conversations. Whether it’s a co-worker reporting to you who’s been acting inappropriately, or perhaps a contractor who has treated you in a way that goes against your values. You know you need to talk with them about it, but how do you do it in a way that’s not confrontational, yet gets results?

To reduce the abrasiveness of a difficult conversation, it’s important to use questions.

If someone asks you: “What did you mean when you said…?” That is a far less confrontational way of bringing up an issue than saying: “What you said was inappropriate.”

When we ask a question, two things happen:

  • It prompts retrospection rather than defence; and
  • It gives the other person a chance to clarify their position. You yourself may be surprised at the response – you may have misinterpreted the meaning or behaviour in the first place. (It is possible!)

Clarity is so important. And questioning rather than dictation will get you there.

Want more articles like this? Check out the  communication skills section.

It’s also important to own your feelings.

Something I like to call ‘you-ing’ – prefacing accusations with ‘you’ – only lends itself to feelings of blame and isolation. For example, “YOU have said the wrong thing”, “YOU have done the wrong thing” or “YOU are wrong” are not very conducive to making the other party feel like talking through a problem.

These are obvious statements; however, you-ing can be very subtle. Try to be conscious of when you use the word ‘you’ in conversations, especially those flavoured with criticism or corrective action.

So, if you can’t say ‘you’, what should you say?

The most effective way to start a difficult discussion is with ‘I’ and ‘we’.

For example, “I was thinking it might go another way. Perhaps we could have another look at it?” Or, “I am feeling a little confused about something and I was hoping you could help me understand what happened here.” Or, simply, “I’m not sure I’d do it that way. I think this way makes more sense.”

See how much lighter those statements are?

With the world moving more and more towards the collective – one of community and trust – “we” need to catch up when communicating with each other, starting with our own individual language and approach.

Have you had to have difficult conversations with colleagues, contractors or clients? How would these techniques have helped? 

For more tips on handling difficult conversations, listing to this interview by Robert Gerrish with conversation specialist Hugh Guyton.