University of Nebraska Medical Center

How to Approach Difficult Conversations

This original article appeared on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141103145827-11585700-stop-hiding-from-cringe-worthy-conversations?trk=mp-reader-card072ae77


LINKEDIN: What is the number-one tool we need when going into a difficult conversation, whether it’s with a boss, a colleague, a client, or someone in our personal lives?

REYNOLDS: Choose your emotions. Before going into the conversation, choose what you want to feel. Select one word to use as an emotional anchor you can go back to when your impatience, anger or fear arises. Consider what you want the other person to feel—inspired, hopeful or courageous? Then go in with and occasionally remind yourself to feel this emotion, too. Or maybe you know you need to feel calm, caring or bold. Choose one emotion word that you can breathe into your body to help you stay focused on the result you want.

Remember that if you are angry or disappointed with the person, they won’t be open to having a conversation with you. They will likely be defensive in return. You need to set and maintain a positive emotional tone.

Then during the conversation, you have to be careful not to lose your emotional grounding. If you begin to feel unnerved, say your anchor word quietly yourself to shift back to the feeling you want to hold for the conversation.

LINKEDIN: What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when engaging in uncomfortable conversations?

REYNOLDS: 1. They put the focus on themselves. If you go into the conversation with the focus on achieving your goals or fixing someone because you think they need it, you will trigger their defensiveness. Nobody likes feeling that you think they are wrong, less than you, or bad. Consider how the conversation will benefit them. What are their goals? What do you think they want to be more successful (not what you want for them but what they actually want)? Do they want to be recognized as a leader? Do they want more respect from their peers? Do they want more peace of mind? You must enter the conversation with the purpose of helping the person discover solutions for something important to them. The purpose is not to fix them or to change them into being someone else. The person is not a means to an end for your goal. You must find common ground for what you want and they want too, then state you want to help them reach this desired outcome before you explore what is hindering them from achieving this.

2. They lose their emotional grounding. During the conversation, you want to notice if you tense up or fall into arguing your point of view. The moment you notice your muscles tense or your breathing shortens, take a deep breath, say the emotion you want to feel to yourself pulling it in with your breath, and exhale the tension. Remember, they are doing their best with what they know now and you are just trying to help them have a different perspective. It might take a while for new ideas to form.

Also, don’t fall into a right and wrong argument. Just state what you want for the person, describe what you have observed is happening now that is keeping the person from getting what he or she wants, and then let them tell you what they think so you can move into reflecting and exploring with them, techniques described in The Discomfort Zone book.

3. They forget to listen. If you don’t listen to them, why should they listen to you? Many of my clients and participants in my training programs find themselves talking too much out of their own discomfort. Once you both determine what outcome you are trying to attain for the person (an outcome that is important to them), you need to listen to his or her story so you can then help her expand her perspective so other possibilities emerge.

You can’t get people to change their minds until you have them lay out what they believe to be true about the problem situation. They can’t see outside the box until they first see the box they are holding onto.

Sometimes they will see the gaps in their logic simply by telling their story. If not, the questions you ask could prompt them to enlarge and change their map.

When you listen beyond their words, their stories reveal:

  • What they feel is most important.
  • What is causing their frustration, fear or embarrassment.
  • What assumptions and beliefs have skewed or limited their perception.
  • What they honestly want to happen regardless of probability or correctness.

If you use reflection and inquiry to uncover inconsistencies, dangers and opportunities, they will change some of the details so their stories make sense again. If they then change their views, they will change their behavior without you having to tell them what to do.

LINKEDIN: In your book, you talk about the need to manage your own stress and anxiety when engaging in a difficult conversation. Why is this important, and how can we learn to do it?

REYNOLDS: When working with the Discomfort Zone, you may trigger negative emotions, which is a good sign. When a person realizes they have blocked a truth that was in their face all the time, they may feel mortified, angry or sad. These emotions indicate learning is occurring. You have broken through a protective barrier in the brain. The person is finally confronting their rationalizations or seeing their blind spots. The clearer and broader understanding of the situation can emerge.

Therefore, you have to manage your impatience, anxiety and fears throughout the conversation for the possibility of a breakthrough to occur. Do whatever you can to stay calm, present, and sincerely hoping for the best for the person you are with.

Remember, they want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect. Remember you emotional intention as described above. Remember your purpose for the conversation is to help the person grow, but this process could take time to unfold. Remember to have compassion as they struggle with changing their minds. Just staying present, listening and showing you understand how they feel could make all the difference to the person, a gift they rarely get.

LINKEDIN: How do you recover after a conversation doesn’t go well?

REYNOLDS: To achieve a meaningful result, you have to trust the value of the process even when you aren’t sure it is working. Their reactions could be unnerving to both of you. Remember, there is a range of possible reactions when holding Discomfort Zone conversations: from minimal, with the person responding, “Oh, yeah, I see what you mean,” to the person gasping with embarrassment and then begging for time to think about what occurred. They might even get angry when it is difficult for them to accept the truth.

In other words, it might take them a few seconds to construct a new perspective or it could take a few minutes, hours or days. They might leave the conversation without a clear direction forward. The dismantling process can take time as the defenses in their brain battle with the new truth trying to emerge.

If you feel the conversations didn’t go well, give it time before you act. After a day or two, you can ask the person if you can try again, wanting the best for them. Or ask them what they need from you now, admitting that you didn’t listen well enough to hear what they needed before. If they need time or space, give it to them but ask if you can check back with them in a week or so. Don’t push it, but let them know the health of your relationship is important to you.

I have had clients scream at me, claiming I have no idea what they are experiencing, only to come back days later telling me how differently they see their situation now. Sometimes they just change their behavior without verbally acknowledging the shift in beliefs. I trust that they will come to a deeper understanding as they experience a change in their results or relationships. Then we talk about what changed for them after a few weeks have passed.

Trust the process. Remember your intentions are for them to grow. Don’t defend your behavior, but don’t give up. Change is not always immediate. It could take time and numerous conversations. Keep listening and caring even when it feels as if nothing is happening. You might be surprised down the road.


Dr. Marcia Reynolds. The president of Covisioning, a leadership training and coaching firm that helps organizations unleash the brilliance in their people, Reynolds is the guru when it comes to difficult conversations, particularly when it comes to work environments. She understands organizational cultures, what blocks communication and innovation, and what is needed to bring people together for better results.

Reynolds’ latest book, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, spells out in clear terms how to not just get through these cringe-worthy conversations, but how to make them productive for everyone involved. I had a chance to pick her brain about her approach and absolutely loved her genius tips on how to take the focus off yourself, how to listen deeply and how to build trust. Next time I’m faced with an uncomfortable conversation, there will be no more fretting, no more procrastinating and no more holding my breath until it’s over. Now, if only she could write a book that would get toddlers to feel just as comfortable about brushing their teeth….


Photo: Andrey_Kuzmin

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