How to handle a difficult conversation

Nobody likes to have a difficult conversation, whether it’s giving a co-worker feedback on poor performance, talking to a spouse about their spending habits or confronting a neighbor about their dog pooping on your lawn. Just thinking about them can cause anxiety in the chest, shortness of breath and sweaty palms.

So why go through all of this? Wouldn’t it be easier just to avoid the conversation?

managing difficult conversations

The short answer is no. Unfortunately, avoidance resolves nothing. The conversation will loom like stale cigar smoke. But the good news is there is a way to approach these conversations that can help you resolve conflict, clear the air and move to a better place. Here is the process we teach in our Leading Difficult Conversations course.

I ask participants to make a list of difficult conversations they’ve had, need to have, or are avoiding. One conversation stood out recently: A young participant (twenty-something) was feeling marginalized by the some of older team members (60-somethings). He didn’t think the older members (who he referred to as “arrogant hippies stuck in a time warp”)Description: respected his education (PhD in Robotics) and expertise. He said they chided him for riding around on over-engineered skateboards rather than focusing on new innovations.

During our classroom exercise, we divide conversations into three key parts:

1. Situation: What is the name of this difficult conversation?
2. Complication: What elements are complicating the situation?
3. Implication: What is the impact of the situation?

The students analyzed the situation and identified the three parts of this conversation:
Situation: The “Generation Gap”

-Ego: They sensed that their classmate was boastful about his PhD accreditation
-Communication: They asked if any of the ‘older members’ had PhDs also and he responded, “I have no idea. I’ve never asked.”
-Assumption: The assumption that the young engineers only care about designing a better skateboard is probably just a story. -Judgment: Labeling the older teammates as ‘arrogant hippies stuck in a time warp” was toxic and a limiting belief.

Implications: The young member ended up working alone, and his projects languished. There was bad blood in the department and he was also missing opportunities to contribute to and learn from the team.

The class thought it was a lose/lose situation.

While many of us want empathy in difficult conversations, it is far more productive to have objective awareness. By analyzing the conversation for more clarity, the student was able to step back from the story and look at it clearly. He was able to see what he did to contribute to the situation and understand that the complications were in his power to change. While the student still had to have a difficult conversation to get resolution, he felt better equipped to approach the conversation and to do so without being a victim.

Next time there’s a difficult conversation you need to have, take time to break it down first and see what’s really going on. In the end, you may just find it’s harder to hold onto the anger than work towards resolution.

Keep the conversations going, and keep in touch,

Rick Kahn and Robert Graham