Difficult conversations are essential when it comes to resolving conflict, enforcing standards of behaviour and creating new and practical solutions to specific problems. While avoiding difficult conversations adds cost and negatively impacts culture and performance, achieving great outcomes from them is often the catalyst for high performance, engagement and a positive workplace culture.

It often falls on the leader to have difficult conversations. As other people avoid them – or handle them poorly – they escalate up the chain, and the leader is often left to resolve issues that have built in intensity over time. This means that leaders have to become masters in the art of facilitating difficult conversations.

What makes certain conversations difficult?

If conversations were only concerned with facts, then there would rarely be a difficult conversation. However, all interactions are multifaceted, and we are always dealing with individual beliefs, values, emotions and self-worth judgements in addition to any facts. These hidden drivers are rarely acknowledged; yet act powerfully to turn any simple discussion into a difficult conversation.

An individual’s emotional and internal responses to a conversation can create extreme discomfort for both parties. Without awareness and mastery, these internal factors can override the rational components of the conversation and impact the ability to achieve a positive outcome.

People often avoid difficult conversations for fear of eliciting a negative reaction or emotion from the other party.

What should a leader do?

It is the job of a leader to help the person they are conversing with to manage the ‘conversational space’ – that is, to ensure that the conversation remain rational and doesn’t descend into the realm of emotions – so that valued outcomes can be achieved.

Seven tips for mastering the art of difficult conversations

  1. Enhance your emotional competence: It is the emotional and social elements that make conversations difficult. The more self-aware and empathetic you are, the more competently you can manage yourself and the environment to achieve the best outcome.
  2. Avoid defensiveness: The five behaviours that demonstrate defensiveness – blame, denial, justification, attack and avoidance – all show up during difficult conversations. It’s important to remember that these behaviours are responses to emotions. They tend to increase the difficulty of the conversation, or derail it completely. Notice these behaviours and recognise that they are signals that you, or the other party, have shifted out of quality conversation and into unhelpful territory.
  3. Create certainty: Certainty reduces fear and decreases negative emotion and defensiveness. The more certainty you can create for both you and the person you are conversing with, the better. Try opening the conversation by clarifying what you will be discussing, for instance, “It is my intention to discuss your recent performance.” Then outline your expectations of the conversation, such as, “It is my expectation that we will review what has been occurring, and together build a specific plan.”
  4. Know your outcome: Great conversations have an outcome – at a minimum a series of agreed next steps. Be clear about what you want, and don’t try to achieve too much in one conversation. Instead aim to resolve one specific issue at a time.
  5. Prepare: Have all of the objective facts at hand. Prepare where, when and who else needs to be present.
  6. Set the ‘what' and negotiate the ‘how': The ‘what’ is your outcome, which provides certainty in the conversation. The ‘how’ is by what means your outcome will be achieved, and invites participation from both parties. For example,  “It is a company standard that you are on time for each board meeting. How specifically can we ensure that this happens?" Being open to having unexpected solutions emerge as to ‘how’ makes it a valuable conversation.
  7. Practice: Mastery comes through practice. Role-play various difficult conversations with your coach, and take the time to reflect and learn after each one.