Five Pitfalls to Avoid When Having a Difficult Conversation

Have you ever watched two people handle a difficult conversation poorly? It is always easier to see the mistakes other people make, but much harder to see our own contributions in similar circumstances.

But the truth is that none of us is perfect and we are all prone to doing very human things when placed under enough pressure. Though, having said that, it seems that some people are more human than others!

When people are sorting through difficulties and frustrations, emotions tend to be running high making it easy to make choices which inadvertently fan the flames.

If you can reduce the unhelpful behaviours coming from you, I can guarantee that most of those people you find difficult will become far easier to handle.

Here are five pitfalls to avoid when you next need to have a difficult conversation with someone at work:

  1. Seeing others as difficult: Yes, yes, I know that some people can be very difficult - no doubt about that. But my experience has been that the great majority of people we find challenging are simply different to us and we haven't as yet found a way to work in well with them. If we can see them as simply different to us, stressed at home or work, or unhappy in some way, we will be far less offended. If we can find a way of thinking that works for us, perhaps a work-it-out mindset, we will be in a much better mindset to approach the conversation in a far more positive manner. If we get our thinking right, our behaviour tends to follow.
     
  2. Choosing a bad time and place: Why do people tend to think that raising issues when they or other people are highly stressed, giving critical feedback at a team meeting, or when people have just done the behaviour we would like them to change, are good times and places? We can, of course, wait until all parties are more settled and find a good place as well. Coffee outside of work perhaps? Even for those individuals who are quite defensive, there are still better days to speak with them.
     
  3. Letting others lose face: Yes, we are allowed to think labels such as bullying, undermining, or under-performing. We are also allowed to use such words in our private conversations with our support people. But I do not recommend using these words with the person concerned. Here you are better to define the problem in a face-saving way - such as, needing to get on the same page for the future, that you are different to each other, but you need to find ways to work in better with each other, or that everyone is under pressure and this may have been contributing to the difficulties. If we can allow the other person to save face, we are less likely to elicit defensive behaviour.
     
  4. Not being prepared: If you are going to lose sleep over a potentially difficult conversation, you can at least use this time to get prepared. What is the best time, place and way you can begin this conversation? And what is your backup plan if they become defensive? Many of us are on auto-pilot when we approach such conversations, and, unfortunately for us, our auto-pilot has done their training at kamikaze school! Here we need to do something deliberately different to our past problem reactions and notice what helps. Otherwise, we seek the advice of good people who can give us suggestions on how to respond well. Perhaps giving the other person some empathy, agreeing and apologising where we can, before exploring solutions.
     
  5. Focusing too much on the past: Yes, there is a time to focus on the past and that is when the other person needs some empathy about the past. But as much as possible, keep the focus on the future. There is nothing we can do about the past. People also tend to remember the past very differently. If you are not careful, your conversation can degenerate into a dispute over what was said or done in the past rather than using your energy in a more productive way.

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