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How to Have a Difficult Conversation

How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Would you describe yourself as conflict-averse? Meaning, when you sense a conflict or a difficult situation coming your way, you back yourself into your corner, shy away, or maybe even delegate to another person? Years ago I would have been right there with you. These days I find myself owning difficult conversations and addressing situations of conflict with ease not because I care less or find it any less intimidating, but because I’ve learned how to structure my responses and navigate my way through highly difficult or high-conflict situations. 

Here’s a five step process to structure a difficult conversation due to a high-conflict situation that will keep you in the driver’s seat while creating an opportunity for streamlined resolution.

Step 1: Define what you know. Use this first step as an opportunity to take a deep breath and identify what you know about the situation. Do this in your most comfortable brainstorming method. For me, this is as simple as a notebook and pencil; for you maybe it’s a bunch of post-its or a Google Doc. Whatever your method, write down everything that’s relevant that you know about the situation. This will clear your head and get your thoughts out in a place where you can see them. 

Step 2: Bucketize what you know into groups. (And yes, “bucketize” is a technical term!) By grouping what you know you’ll start to create categories, which ladder up to the bigger issue at hand and will eventually become your outline for your conversation. Common categories in difficult or conflict-heavy situations include things like “issues,” “timing,” “quality,” “resources,” etc. 

Step 3: Define your ideal outcome. So now you’ve organized your thoughts and identified your major topics. What do you want to happen as a result of the conversation? Or what must be the outcome once the conflict is resolved? This is a decision that will result in an action. For me, in my consulting world, this is typically a client-driven decision that results in my team being able to execute based on a decided direction. Maybe for you it’s a clear answer on how to allocate a budget or which person will receive a promotion. Whatever it is, make your outcome big enough to drive to an action, otherwise you’ll find yourself at step one in no time at all.

Step 4: Create a roadmap. Whether it’s two steps for twenty-two steps, you need to have a thought-through roadmap to achieve your desired outcome based on the problem you’re addressing and what you already know. For example, if your problem is a delayed kick-off on a project and you know it’s delayed because of budgetary constraints and your desired outcome is to start within two weeks to maintain your original timeline, then your roadmap must include steps to alleviate the budgetary constraints and gain approval to start your project. Be thoughtful and succinct with your steps. It’s all about quality and accomplish-ability. 

Step 5: Build an agenda. No matter if this is a client-facing meeting, a chit-chat with a co-worker, or a huge presentation to a bunch of senior executives, you’ve got to have an agenda. This agenda should be structured as follows: Problem statement (why are we here?) | Intended Outcome (what we will achieve) | Recap of what we know (how we got here) | Opportunity to Achieve Outcome (roadmap) | Immediate Next Steps (how we will ensure outcome success). This structure avoids personal nuance and keeps the conversation on the outcome (not the conflict / difficult situation), which will ensure success.

Remember that conflict isn’t a bad thing. Good things come from conflict – innovation, relationships, challenges – just to name a few. Change your thinking about how to manage and work through difficult conversations and conflict-heavy situations creating opportunities for personal and professional growth well beyond what you could have imagined in a status-quo world.