Surviving a Difficult Conversation


As leaders, an important part of our job involves navigating difficult conversations. It may be delivering bad news to a customer, addressing inappropriate personal or professional behavior, or negotiating a challenging agreement. Whatever the situation – our professional success, as well as the success of our projects and our businesses, depends upon how well we manage these situations.

Let’s face it. No one enjoys these conversations. They can stress us out, keep us up at night, and make us dread going to work. While nothing is going to make these conversations easy, following these four steps will improve the outcome of these conversations for all involved, and hopefully reduce some of the dread as well.

  1. Determine the goal of the conversation. Why does this discussion need to occur? Does it need to happen now? Before any conversations occur, you must be very clear on the reason for the conversation, what result you are looking for, and what action you want the other party to take. If you don’t have a specific outcome in mind, how can you know if you have been successful? For example, let’s say you have a team member that consistently arrives later in the morning than the rest of the team. If you meet with that person and tell them that this behavior concerns you, but don’t have an expected outcome, how can this person meet your expectations? Have you set a specific time schedule for your team? Have you communicated it? People are not mind readers – be prepared to specify the action or correction you want. Know what you are going to say, be clear on the reason for the conversation, and determine what outcome you want before you meet. If it’s a negotiation, figure out in advance what you want and what you are willing to give up.
  2. Focus on a clear, concise message. Once you understand what the goal of the conversation is, you must craft a clear concise message to deliver. By developing the message in advance, you avoid detours. You will avoid getting tongue-tied and talking more than you need to. I once had to let go of a consultant in my practice, as the work for his particular specialty was drying up. I had prepared for the conversation, outlined the facts for the consultant, what the company was prepared to do for him, and what the next steps were. The conversation went about as well as it could have, and the consultant being let go was accepting and felt we had treated him fairly. As we were completing the conversation, a senior VP came in and proceeded to talk for 45 minutes about how bad he felt about it and how there was nothing we could do, etc. Not only did it totally unravel my outcome, but made the consultant feel bad, and could have put the company in a difficult legal position. “Winging it” has no place in a serious business conversation. Be clear, be brief, and be fair. State the situation, the relevant facts, and the options if there are any. Conclude by clarifying and confirming the agreed upon outcome.
  3. Work from facts, not feelings. As you determine the goal of the conversation and develop the message, you must gather and validate all relevant facts. Document these facts clearly and completely, and if appropriate, be prepared to provide the other person with the relevant documentation. If this is a company personnel matter, most organizations will require you to provide documentation to the HR department as well (often referred to as “papering the file”). Regardless of how you feel about the situation, or your opinions of the people or actions involved, your focus should be on communication based solely on relevant facts. If you are discussing a performance issue, be clear on the facts of the behavior, how it deviated from what was expected, and the specific impact the behavior had on the team and the project. If you are preparing for a negotiation, or for delivering bad news to stakeholders, the more details you have at your disposal, the more you can work from facts rather than emotions.
  4. Use specific language. Finally, prepare to communicate the message and the facts in a clear, specific way. This means don’t generalize, paraphrase, or use softening language when presenting your message. If you aren’t specific, or try to “talk around” the issue, and expect to successfully achieve your desired outcome it won’t happen. Instead you will leave a large “conversational space” for the other person to challenge your version of the facts or change the subject. Your message will likely be lost.

When you need to have a difficult conversation, preparation is everything. Successfully handling these situations requires you to be clear, concise, and specific. You must document any relevant facts and present them in a specific focused manner. When the time comes for the conversation, focus on working toward the desired outcome you identified in your planning, rather than spending a lot of time on blame or complaints. This preparation will help you stay calm, focused, and business like – giving you the best chance at a successful outcome.