Sunday, October 10, 2010

How To Have a Difficult Conversation

We failed.

We don’t have the money.

There’s been an accident.

These opening lines are not the ideal way to start a meeting. Yet sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have to have a difficult conversation with a customer, supplier or family member. Wouldn't it make you feel a little better if you had a way to prepare for such a conversation?

This week we will talk about some tools and analysis you can use to develop your skills handling difficult conversations. Unfortunately, the only way to improve is to keep having difficult conversations! But the experience will make you a much better negotiator as you build your confidence in handling tough issues, and turn that big knot in your stomach into a smaller knot. (No, it never goes away entirely.)

The key is to analyze as best you can the impact of the news and the likely response of the other party. From there you can develop the right way to sequence the conversation and manage your emotions to reduce the emotional reaction of the other party. If handled properly, difficult conversations and the efforts to address the problem can actually result in a better relationship with your counterpart instead of a worse one.

First, make sure you know what happened! Don’t have the conversation until you know, as well as possible, what caused the problem, what the situation is now and how you will remedy this for the future. Demonstrate that you have been diligent in researching the details. That said, don’t delay so that the problem gets worse; timely engage the other party if their input is needed.

Second, determine what the problem means to the other side from a business and personal perspective. Will it impact a business cycle? Are additional funds required? How does this affect their status in the organization? Did they “go to bat” for you? How will the other party react when they realize the implications? Be prepared to acknowledge the legitimacy of their emotions. “I understand this is a major issue for you and you have every right to be frustrated and angry about this.”

Third, acknowledge your mistakes. Relationships thrive on trust. Honesty is the single greatest element of trust. If you try to rationalize the outcome to shift blame, it won’t change the impact to the other party. But it will highlight that you care more about your self-interests than helping to mitigate the problem you just dumped in their lap. Nothing destroys a relationship faster than the suggestion of self-interest.

Fourth, know what outcomes you want from the meeting. Do you need the other side to make a decision? Take action? Inform others? Think about what the other party needs to do once they have the information and how you can offer to help.

Finally, and most important of all, rehearse. Sit down with a team member and role play the conversation. Practice saying the actual words you will use. Getting feedback in advance on how your words sound to someone else can avoid unnecessary perception issues.

Everybody knows that mistakes happen. The key to a successful difficult conversation is demonstrating candor in the cause, empathy in the emotion and remedies against repetition. If you work diligently and collaboratively to mitigate the impact, the other party will perceive you as a trusted ally worthy of a continued relationship.

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