Practical Communication

Four Steps for Conducting Challenging Conversations

Last week, I posed some questions you should ask yourself before initiating a challenging conversation. Now that you’ve had some time to prepare yourself for the conversation, here is a four-step process that will help you navigate through the most difficult conversations to a successful conclusion.

However, keep in mind, no conversation will be successful if both parties aren’t willing to contribute positively toward the conversation.

Step 1: Set the Stage

-Set a date. Don’t blindside the other person with your planned, prepared, rehearsed conversation. It’s a good idea to let the other party know what you want to talk about and find time that works for both of you to conduct the conversation.

-Choose a neutral location. Pick a place where both of you will be comfortable. If it’s a work situation, a conference room, outdoor break location, or just about any place that isn’t your office, it is likely a good choice. Also, think about privacy and find a location where you’ll be unlikely to be interrupted.

-Set ground rules for the conversation. Before beginning, discuss some guidelines for keeping the conversation on track, how to phrase feedback, and strategies both of you can use if you start feeling defensive.

Step 2: Start the Discussion

-As the initiator, your first comments are critical to the success of the conversation. You’re the one who called the meeting, so you need to prepare an opening statement that lets the other person know how important it is for both of you to maintain a good relationship and work together to help solve the problem.

-Ask the other person to share his/her views first. Think Covey’s famous habit, “Seek first to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” Once it’s clear to both of you what you’re there to talk about and how important it is that the issue is resolved, ask the other person how he or she sees the situation. Ask for specific examples if they’re not provided. Allowing the other person to have the “first word” shows that you’re there to listen, not dictate.

-Acknowledge what you’ve heard. If something the other person said is true, agree with it. If you disagree, or perceive things differently, at least acknowledge what you’ve heard. You’ll have your turn to share your truth.

-Share your truth. Try to avoid contradicting the other person or telling him or her, “You’re wrong.” Instead, share your truth as you experienced it. Remember; think SPECIFIC, FACTUAL, and NON-JUDGEMENTAL when you’re phrasing your comments.

-Take responsibility for your role in the situation. Share what you’ve done right and what you could have done differently.

-Once you both have a clear view of the situation, move on to problem solving. Although the discussion process can take awhile, and I’m not advocating cutting the conversation short, I think people sometimes get stuck “debating” the details in an attempt to be right or to get the other person to agree with them. Remember that your goal isn’t to be right, or to win, or to get the other person to admit fault. The real goal is to move forward to a solution for the future.

Step 3: Work together to Identify a Mutually Agreeable Solution

-Identify criteria for a mutually agreeable solution. Most people wouldn’t buy a car without having criteria established (cost, gas mileage, safety, etc.) before walking onto the car lot. For that same reason, don’t just start tossing out ideas for solving the problem. First, identify what a good solution looks like.

-Ask the other person to share his or her solutions first. Again, as an initiator, allowing the other person to share his or her thoughts first shows that you’re open to input and not there with a pre-planned “agenda.”

-Share the solutions you’ve identified.

-Once you’ve exhausted all ideas, identify solutions (or a combination of solutions) that best meet the criteria you’ve established. Having already identified what a good solution looks like, review the ideas you’ve both come up with and see which one(s) best fit the criteria and meet both of your needs.

Step 4: Agree on a Solution and Establish a Plan for Implementation

-It’s not enough to just agree. Work teams are notorious for ‘head nod” agreements where everyone agrees with a solution, but no one actually implements it. Then they end up back at the conference table a month later wondering why nothing has changed. To ensure you’ll actually implement your solution, you have to have a plan.

-Who, What, When, How. The implementation plan needs to be specific. Each party needs to identify what he or she will do and how he or she will do it. Deadlines are a great motivator and give you an opportunity to check back in with each other. You might say, “Let’s give this a try for two weeks and meet again July 7 to see how we both feel things are going.”

-Follow up. As outlined in the step above, a follow-up meeting to check in is critical to the success for a solution. Your first attempt at a solution will likely be imperfect. You and the other person are also imperfect. The follow-up session allows you both to identify what is and isn’t working and to tweak the solution, or even start the whole process over again if the solution hasn’t worked at all.

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