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Better Ways to Have Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are part of work life. People are often stressed leading up to them, and confronting a thorny topic can make a bad situation even worse if the discussion is handled poorly.

Luckily, improving your ability to turn these interactions into productive opportunities is a skill that can be developed. While every situation is unique, the Volaris talent development process equips our leaders to make the most of even an uncomfortable exchange by outlining the issue at hand and thinking through the desired outcome.

Saying “no”

No. One word, but it can be really difficult to say it when the person asking is in a power position compared to you, or because you’d like to be helpful.

Some people default to “yes” or “no” regardless of the ask. If you default to “yes” because you like to avoid conflict or to be helpful, you end up being over-committed. If you default to “no” to stay in your comfort zone, you might miss a new experience you truly enjoy or cut off future opportunities.

Some people can’t say “no” because they’re worried about what that means for the person asking the question, but there are plenty of ways to be helpful while still refusing a request:

  • Requests for your time: Maybe you can refer the person to free resources or set a limit on how much time you can spend on a specific ask. If you are a subject matter expert, consider creating an FAQ or other documents that you can share freely as needed.
  • Interruptions/questions: The first step is to assess priority. You may not be happy about it, but you might need to switch your attention. If it’s not high priority to you, but it is to them, assess whether a small amount of effort on your part can keep them moving forward. If you need to say “no” outright, then do so with an explanation of why and suggest options if you know any.
  • “Not my job”: This can lead to conflict when handled poorly. In some cases, the person asking is genuinely unaware that it’s not your job – you might be the only person they know who might know. Explaining what your job scope is can give context, and again, if you can redirect to the right team/person, that’s helpful. As a sidenote, sometimes when you are a bit burnt out, your definition of “your job” will get narrower and your knee-jerk response to requests will be some form of “no.” Consider being a bit transparent about where you are at (“I’m kind of stressed right now”) and offer to follow up in a few days if that works.
  • Extra work: If your manager asks you to do extra work or take on a new project, the default probably needs to be “yes,” but don’t assume they know exactly what your current priorities are or about potential conflicts. Talk through your workload and set expectations on timing/priorities. If there are indications that your job role is changing into something new, then some renegotiation might be needed. Overall, being graceful about it means staying supportive for the overall work while establishing clear priorities.
  • Recruiters or job offers: A soft “no” in this case might mean talking to them to find out what they are looking for – potentially, you can offer to share the opportunity in your network.
  • Being asked for a referral: If you are 100% happy to give a referral, then no problem. But sometimes you’re asked to give one when you have reservations about doing so, or if you give an honest answer, it may not be entirely favorable. It’s okay to give a diplomatic answer, like “I don’t think I’m the right person to give a referral for this” or to tell them where the limits are, such as “I can speak to this project, but I won’t give a referral on any of your other work.” Sometimes, this provides a good out without giving a hard “no.”

The pre-work for a difficult conversation

Based on the number of books out there about having difficult conversations, it’s something many people worry about. Some examples are reviews for poor performers, firing someone, getting conflicting stakeholders to some sort of agreement, or giving critical feedback to someone.

Preparation has a big impact on arriving at a successful outcome, as outlined by best-selling author Joseph Grenny:

1. Go in with the right mindset

You can cause a difficult conversation to happen. There’s an adage that says, “If you go looking for a fight, you’ll find one.” By contrast, if you go into a conversation believing that whatever happens, some good can come out of it, that might lead to better outcomes.

Another aspect of this is understanding what the other person knows and where they are coming from. Do they have the same information you do? Do they perceive the same problems you do? Do they have different motivations from you? Having some understanding of their position can help you to reframe the conversation, and maybe reframe your relationship to be partners instead of opponents. Empathy can go a long way.

2. Check your motivations

When stressed or threatened, your motives may become short-term and selfish. People worry about whether others will like them, about their reputation, about being right, about winning, or they just want to avoid conflict. This is true no matter how high up in an organization they might be.

Ask yourself: What do I really want for me? For the other person? For other stakeholders? The answers should be ones that align with good outcomes and with your ethics. They will help you to focus and remain calm.

Are you aware of hidden purposes? You might think you have honorable goals, but if you default to excessive criticism, you might be revealing something about your motivation – i.e., to win or to punish instead of to reach a good outcome.

3. Manage your emotions

Unhelpful emotions are a barrier to productive conversation. Under stress, your immediate emotions might be anger, fear, and defensiveness. As Grenny said, “Our emotions have less to do with what the other person is doing, and more to do with the story we tell ourselves about what they are doing.” It’s easy to build a story with a villain (them) and a victim (us).

By adjusting the roles to be about actors in a story, you might see how you have contributed to the current dynamic or situation. This helps to remove emotion. In thinking about your immediate emotional response, you might uncover deeper drivers as to why you are so upset about the situation.

4. Gather the facts

By its nature, a difficult conversation will have opposing views. It’s better to start with the facts you have than to just present a conclusion. Otherwise, it’s a contest and not a conversation. Being able to give clear and specific critical feedback while staying emotionally neutral (or even “warm”) is a skill that has to be developed.

Talking about the impacts and outcomes of poor behavior or underperformance can also help to focus the discussion away from personal views. Sometimes a person knows they are not doing well but they hang on due to fear (fear of losing their job, fear of asking for help, shame for past behavior) and lose sight of how they are blocking other people from doing their jobs well. Being open about the negative impacts can help them to see why things need to change.

Of course, facts can be disputed and skewed, so you have to leave some room for the other person to speak to the facts as you present them. In the case of a decision that has already been made, it won’t change the outcome. Still, all parties will feel heard.

5. Get curious

You need to be confident in what you need to say/accomplish, but be open to learning something in the conversation that might impact your point-of-view. Are you making assumptions about someone else’s intentions?

Active listening can help both sides to get through a difficult conversation. As famed diplomat Dean Rusk said, “When you listen deeply and sincerely, others feel less of a need to resist you in order to be heard.”

How you say things matters

You can derail all good intentions with the wrong turn of phrase. When you’re planning what to say, you need to consider that you are conversing with another human being, who will have feelings and opinions, too.

There are some trigger phrases that generate an immediate negative response. They seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often people use them, especially since they likely would get their back up if they were on the receiving end.

Triggers can also be personal and tied to someone’s lived experience (that you don’t know anything about).

In an article for Harvard Business Review, noted academic James R. Detert tackled trigger phrases based on common mistakes. Here’s his advice:

  • Don’t assume your point of view is obvious. Trigger phrases like obviously, clearly, beyond doubt, as we all know. These feed into naïve realism, where you believe you have access to some objective reality that everyone will see and agree with, or arrogance, where you assume any other point-of-view is inconsequential.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Trigger phrases like always, never. Exaggerated statements often sound like accusations when they are describing a negative behavior. They can undermine your credibility and lead to a debate about frequency or truth instead of about behavior and outcomes. If your intent is to get someone to start or stop doing something, keep the focus on that.
  • Don’t tell them what they should do (especially if you’re not their boss). Trigger phrases like you should do this, that’s not the way it should be done. If you are trying influence behavior, it’s better to let someone decide for themselves. Not to say you can’t influence that decision, but it is more compelling to discuss options and data.
  • Don’t challenge someone’s character or integrity. Trigger phrases like unprofessional, wrong, unethical. These things may be true, but especially if it’s not your responsibility to call out these things, you’ll shut down the conversation immediately. Asking “why?” instead can uncover new insights on what happened. Sticking to outcomes and observable behaviours is better than what amounts to a personal attack.
  • Don’t say, “It’s not personal.” As soon as you say it, it becomes personal. If someone is clearly affected by something you said or did, this will make it worse. Instead, you can acknowledge that it is personal to them, even if it’s not to you.

Everyone has their own triggers that can derail a difficult conversation, and it’s important to acknowledge that no one gets it right all the time. But if you need to have a difficult conversation, taking some time to think through your approach and messaging can help you to avoid unnecessary conflict.

About the Author

As VP, Corporate Knowledge at Volaris Group, Sherry works closely with all of our organizations to capture & share best practices through peer programs, special sessions, portals, and communities. She also oversees Volaris Group platforms, technologies, and strategies that support our collaborative culture.

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