How To Make Tough Conversations Easy
We all have them. Conversations that we dread, that don’t go the way we hope they would, and that some of us even agonize about afterward. Whether it’s asking your boss for a raise, negotiating with a supplier, or figuring out how to give a negative evaluation to an employee – conversations about difficult topics bedevil us. We dislike the upset beforehand, so we tend to put them off. We dislike the tension while they’re going on, so we tend to cut them short and don’t get what we want. We’re not at our best under those circumstances, and that further cuts into our effectiveness. And we find them haunting us afterward, thinking about all the things we could have said.
It’s time for those conversations to go better. This book will take you through a process that will help you stop dreading difficult conversations, get what you need out of them, and look back at them with satisfaction. Let’s get started.
1. Project the future emotional state you want, not the one you fear.
The dread that precedes tough talks comes from fearing that the experience will leave you worse off than you were before – emotionally wounded, perhaps, possibly humiliated, almost certainly feeling bad because you didn’t get what you want.
Here’s what’s happening: Your mind is projecting a bad outcome because of your fear. That creates a doom loop that has your emotions feeding off your negative thinking, and your negative thinking feeding off your emotions. There’s nowhere to go but down.
It’s time for some positive talk. When you think about the coming conversation, don’t let the negative thoughts crowd in. Instead, tell yourself something like, “I am confident and serene. I will handle the conversation beautifully.” Use your own words and concepts, specific to your situation, but that should give you the idea. Keep your mantra simple and positive and avoid negative statements (don’t say, “I won’t be afraid”; say, “I will be courageous.”
Rather than dwelling on the possible bad outcome and feeling so miserable you never have the conversation, project yourself into that happy future state.
The idea is to drown out the negative emotions with positive ones. That will prevent you from getting worked up, and it will stop your mind from feeding off your emotions, ending the doom loop.
But you have to practice it faithfully. What I can tell you is that if you practice saying your mantra to yourself several times a day for a few minutes, and especially whenever negative thoughts develop, you will find yourself shedding your emotional discomfort. An especially good time to practice your mantra is when you are waking up or falling asleep. In those half-awake moments, our conscious minds seem to access the unconscious – where the fear resides – more easily.
It takes a while – sometimes several weeks – but stick with it. The results are worth it. They will surprise you. One day you’ll suddenly notice that your stomach is no longer tied up in knots about that conversation. You’ll face it with equanimity.
Once you’ve achieved that happy state, you’re ready for the next step.
2. Decide what the conversation is about.
It seems obvious: It’s about what you’ve been dreading – asking your boss for a raise (and getting shot down); trying to persuade a colleague to change an approach to a major software implementation (and getting shot down); accusing an employee of pilfering company supplies (and getting stonewalled).
No. The conversation is about articulating to your boss all the great things you’ve done for the company, or perhaps pointing out that people at your level of experience are making more than what you’re making now. Or the conversation is about how we can save tons of time, money and effort if we do the software implementation in the right way. Or the conversation is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, both good and bad.
That’s framing. And it’s the key to a successful conversation. If you frame an issue with your positive end in mind, it will come out very differently than if you frame it around your fears. You want to begin the conversation with a brisk, confident, statement like, “Let’s talk today about the money my cost-saving ideas have meant to this company and how I can be fairly compensated for that.”
Do you see the difference? Right away, the issue on the table is about good things like fairness, and your positive contribution, as well as your compensation, rather than your boss’ penny-pinching.
How you frame the conversation will determine how it can go. Always look for the positive setting, and one that assumes your position, and then puts the negotiation on how that works out. In other words, it’s not, “Can I get a raise?” because that sets up the listener to say “No.” Rather, it’s “Let’s talk about how the company is going to compensate me for my contributions of the last twelve months.” The different phrasing assumes that you deserve better compensation; the question on the table is how much.
Of course, this kind of positive framing won’t stop a complete Grinch from saying something like, “Bah Humbug! The company has no intention of compensating you for anything you’ve done!” But then at least the lines have been drawn in a way that lets you debate that issue, not some other one like how hard the boss’s life it right now.
3. Identify the elephant in the room.
If there’s an elephant in the room – a big, obvious problem that everyone involved knows about, but for one reason or another is avoiding – then you can usually get good mileage out of naming that beast. Sometimes you can change a long-festering issue, other times, you’ll just get a collective sigh of relief. But you’ll almost always get respect for courage and integrity.
It’s really important, then, to think clearly about any such elephants beforehand, in the calm before the battle, when your emotions are not roiled and you have some time to sort out what you have to say. The idea is to state the problem or issue in a way that points back to your frame. “I know the indictments and the fifteen straight quarters of losses have taken a heavy toll on the company and its management. That’s why my cost-saving strategies have been so important. Without them, Blunderbuss Enterprises might not even been able to avoid bankruptcy. In Q3 alone, we put $5 million back to the bottom line . . . “
Bring up the elephant before anyone else does, and you will strengthen your side of the conversation rather than weakening it.
4. Listen and reflect, don’t defend.
As the conversation gets going, the opposite party may well fling brickbats at you, no matter how hard you work to keep things positive. “Of course I take company supplies! I haven’t had a raise in six years! The company owes me!”
Those kind of emotional curve balls are designed to deflect attention, and induce guilt, not to resolve the situation positively. And you’ll find the conversation rapidly spinning out of control if you chase your interlocutor down those particular rabbit holes. Instead, say, “What I hear you saying is that you feel that you’ve gone a long time without a raise, is that right?” Then, once you’ve got agreement on what was just said, you can make your move. “Let’s talk about your raise at another time. Right now, let’s resolve the issue of those company supplies, and how much the losses are costing us.”
Get the employee focused on the shrinkage issue, rather than compensation, and you can stay focused on the real problem.
You have to recognize that hard conversations, the kind that you keep putting off because you’re afraid of the answer, often involve some tough bargaining, and the likelihood of an acceptable outcome becomes much more likely if everyone involved feels that their needs and emotions have been heard and respected. So be prepared to spend some time doing just that, using your reflective listening skills.
People often won’t identify how they’re feeling. Instead, they’ll make an accusation. “You never . . .” “You always . . .” What you need to listen for here is the emotional feeling behind the charge. “What I hear you saying is that you feel underappreciated. Is that right?”
You’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to talk to someone once these emotional attitudes behind the statements, charges, and accusations are acknowledged. But you have to listen closely and carefully, without defensiveness, to hear the emotion. It’s easy to get defensive, and occupied in refuting the charge, rather than hearing the attitude behind what’s being said. You must remain open, and be willing to acknowledge that your actions have perhaps led to someone else feeling hurt, afraid, lonely, or distrustful.
The key is to stay open no matter what. Emotional conversations tend to induce feelings of defensiveness, guilt, and anger, and those are explosive emotions to handle at any time, and certainly under the gun. Prepare yourself beforehand by thinking through the possibilities, but then listen hard in the moment, because you may well be surprised. Many of us are not aware of how our actions affect others. This is a good time to find out.
5. Name the differences.
Once the conversation has gone on for a while, you’ve framed it successfully, listened to the emotions carefully, and reflected them, it’s time to state clearly what the remaining differences are in the context of your initial frame. “So let me clarify for a moment. I hear you saying that the company is prepared to offer me a 3 percent raise and the chance at a 50 percent bonus at the end of the calendar year if those revenue targets are met. What my research indicated was that a 6 percent raise would put me in a fairer position given my achievements. It sounds like we agree on the bonus arrangement, and we’re 3 percent apart on the raise. Is that the way you hear it?”
Once the other party agrees, or you reach agreement on the differences, then you’re in a strong position to make a counter offer, or accept the other person’s proposal with conditions, or whatever you feel is appropriate. If you’re too far apart, you can suggest a break in the discussion for both parties to think things over, and get agreement on when to resume.
That gives you an opportunity to restate your goals, if you still are far apart and you want to continue to negotiate.
Always begin by stating what both parties agree on, in order to stress the positive, making it more likely you’ll be able to move forward on the remaining issues. It’s why negotiators in very difficult, protracted bargaining impasses spend time on getting a mutual understanding on things like the shape of the table, the conditions for negotiation, and so on. Once we get into the habit of agreeing, we build positive connection and emotional rapport, and we’re more likely to conclude with a final agreement.
Of course, some negotiations are too difficult, or too negatively charged, for that kind of atmospheric conditioning to help much, but most everyday conversations are helped enormously.
6. State your emotional situation and needs.
Just as you need to be open to hearing the other party’s emotional story, you need to be ready to state yours. In very fraught situations, of course, this can be ferociously difficult. But sometimes simply saying how you feel will lead to a breakthrough or at least an important acknowledgment from the other side. “I’ve been hurting for several weeks ever since that last conversation in which you said my contribution to the company was essentially nil. I need to feel like I’ve got your support when I’m going up against that tough negotiating team from XYZ Enterprises. I need to feel like the company has my back.”
A lot of the agony of these hard conversations comes from unexpressed hurt feelings, so rather than make accusations, state the facts, and say how you feel as a result. You will feel a good deal better just to get your feelings out in the open. Make them the “I” statements of psychological lore, rather than “You said” statements. Explaining how you feel is something that the other person can’t argue with. “You” statements will quickly put the other party on the defensive.
While stating how you feel won’t always turn the conversation in your favor, it will almost always give you added leverage.
7. Conclude with agreement on action.
Always go armed with the clear knowledge of what you can accept, so you’ll know when you’re ready to push for agreement. Sometimes, all you can get is the willingness to keep talking. In both cases, it’s extremely important to reach a mutual understanding on whatever the next steps are – time and place of your next meeting, further outside research that needs to be done, or a complete meeting of minds. Whatever you can agree on, state it clearly and use it to define the action that will result.
Tough conversations can lead to extraordinary breakthroughs, happy surprises, and emotional healing – but only if you actually have them. Prepare yourself to keep the emotions as positive as possible. Frame the conversation in ways that give the other person a choice among positive outcomes for you. Be open about big outstanding issues. Listen openly without defensiveness and reflect the underlying emotions of the other party. Name the areas of agreement and the ones where differences remain. Be open about your feelings, too. And move forward on action.
Taking these steps won’t make tough conversations easy, but they will create the conditions for a successful, mutually satisfying outcome.