Starting a difficult conversation is difficult. Starting it badly can be disastrous. Such as the call we took 2 weeks ago from a manager who had tried to tackle a serious behavioral issue that then descended into her staff member walking out on her inside 30 seconds.
Your opening choice of words can and must be planned. Your opener, like a good pick up line, needs to be designed to engage and put the recipient into a position where they want to talk and to engage with you.
We often support our conflict coaching clients by critiquing the exact words they want to use to start those conversations. Yes, I’ve even been known to make people practise them looking into a mirror. Here is some of the feedback Tony and I have given over the years. Feedback at least allows the conversation to have a chance of success rather then a walk out!
1. If you start the conversation you set the tone. That’s responsibility. Use it wisely. Choose your words, body language, location and approach carefully.
2. See your opening as an offer or invitation to have a discussion. The offer must be accepted for a real conversation to follow. It should only be 2-3 sentences long. Otherwise it’s not an offer but a one way conversation. You may get to say what you want but that is not a conversation. Likewise don’t give your solution as it prevents you from taking them on the journey of why you think that.
3. You must mention the difficult topic or content. No excuses. If you don’t you are not allowing the other person to accept the real conversation you want to have. It can also allow them to prepare which can only be a good thing in sensitive discussions.
4. Don’t use the words “but” or “however”. Avoid the softy, gently approach with a line like “you’ve had a wonderful year so far BUT I really need to talk to you about X”. As if they will recall anything you said before the BUT.
5. It’s ok to acknowledge discomfort, theirs and yours. It settles the conversation, gives empathy and builds trust. “This conversation is going to be difficult for you and for me…..”
6. Avoid hiding behind others with comments like, “I have had complaints from NSW section managers so I need to talk to you”. All they will be focusing on is whose been talking about me and why didn’t they speak to me directly.
7. Wherever possible use positive language, like “attendance” rather than “absenteeism”. Negative or judgmental language triggers people to shut down or go on the offensive by being defensive. Not really where you want their head to go if you are wanting them to accept your invitation to have a difficult conversation.
We are passionate about supporting people to prepare and participate in difficult conversations. Give us a call to improve your chances of success and outcomes.