How to engage in difficult conversations

Job-related or personal, we all face these situations. But you can be prepared by practising, being direct, learning to frame the issue and staying calm

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(Troy Media) How would you handle yourself in front of the media if you were accused of sexual harassment or impropriety from several decades ago?

This is the circumstance faced by actor Kevin Spacey this week – and many other Hollywood and political personalities over the past several weeks and months.

Is it beneficial to simply apologize for any wrongdoings? Do you refuse to engage and hire a lawyer to speak on your behalf? Do you resign from office, leave your job or go into hiding?

With so many options, is there any one strategy that will help to reduce the conflict or mend hurt feelings?

Thankfully, most of us never have to imagine a scenario like this since we don’t spend much time in the public eye. I don’t want to engage in a discussion about appropriate behaviour and taking responsibility here, but we can address a few strategies for improving a difficult conversation.

I’m referring to the kind of conversation that requires you to share a message that’s likely not going to be graciously received. (No, I’m not talking about having to explain to your spouse why you spent all your retirement money at the casino, although that certainly falls under the category of ‘difficult.’)

You may have to lay off a longtime employee. You may want to tell a friend that their attire is inappropriate. You may need to let a colleague know that her work is unacceptable. Whatever the case, you know that feeling in the pit of your stomach as you face this highly uncomfortable and often very awkward conversation.

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Before you even engage, pause and ask yourself what the ultimate purpose of this conversation is. What’s the problem – why are you having to approach this person? (It’s obviously not because you simply love to hear yourself talk … and if it is, then you have an even bigger problem that can’t possibly be addressed here.) Ultimately, you need to be clear about what you hope to achieve.

You also need to be honest with yourself and determine if you’ve been part of the problem. If you do have a role in a situation that needs rectifying, accepting your responsibilities up front is a good way of demonstrating that you’re not simply blaming the other person for everything. (In other words, while your five-year-old emotional self may be saying: “Not my fault! Not my fault!” your mouth needs to express something else.)

Practising ahead of time what you’re going to say, how you’re going to get your message across, is also a good idea. You can do this in your head or in front of a mirror (just make sure no one is watching). But it’s often better to role play with another person who can view the message from another perspective. That way you can get some constructive feedback (hopefully) and fine-tune your words and non-verbal expressions.

When you initiate the conversation, be direct. Beating around the bush will only make the situation confusing. Don’t let yourself be sidetracked. It can be easy to drift off topic (especially if you feel bad about what you have to say and your subconscious feelings of guilt – reasonable or not – are working overtime).

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Recognize that few people are going to really listen if the finger is being pointed at them and they’re being made to feel that the world’s problems are on their shoulders. Framing the conversation in terms of “How can we address this problem? How can we make it better?” is much more productive than “This is your problem. Fix it.” (Granted, there are times when that phrase is appropriate.)

Although you have no control over how the other person is going to respond, you can control your behaviour and words, no matter how frustrated or angry you feel. Keep your emotions in check. Remind yourself that yelling, regardless of how much you want to, is not an effective way to deal with the issue and is only likely to make things worse.

If things get hairy, take a deep breath, refocus, relax and get back on track. It’s all right to lean on silence. If the other person is getting upset, be quiet and let them get it out of their system.

Finally, if things seem to be really getting out of control, walk away. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break, letting everyone cool down and coming back another time to start again.

Because you don’t want the situation to get worse. You want it resolved.

Troy Media Columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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