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Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge: Developing tools to handle difficult conversations

Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

We're just in from an annual leadership retreat where the theme was “Difficult Conversations.” Our presentation helped set the stage for the 160 attendees to get to work developing tools for better conversations around issues they found hard to approach.

As managers and leaders, we are often faced with initiating challenging conversations that can feel uncomfortable. In our role we deal with issues that range from an employee not showing up on time to offending a customer, personal grooming, or even a major breech of company policy. Sometimes those difficult conversations are with unhappy customers.

Our suggestion to make these encounters go more smoothly is to, first, prepare. Prepare yourself by having a clear outcome for the conversation. Give yourself the gift of clarity by knowing what you want (not just what you don’t want). Being upset about someone's performance or behavior as you enter a conversation has the potential for making things worse. State your desired outcome in the positive. Try saying it several different ways so you'll be familiar with the language you want to use. While you may want someone to stop doing something, you need to be explicit about what you want them to BE DOING instead. People learn TO DO a lot easier than to NOT DO.

Second, establish rapport. That is, create an atmosphere of safe concern. You want to help them get back on track and you want to come out of the conversation with a relationship that will continue to work through time. Being aggressively confrontational, hostile, or angry are likely to make the situation worse even if it appears that you have gotten compliance.

Pay attention to your own internal state. The conversation is likely to go better if you are feeling resourceful. Others tend to pick up on how we are feeling, so expecting a mutually beneficial outcome will make it a lot easier for both of you. You may be right; they may be wrong. But getting angry and losing it will not give you solid ground from which to sort things out.

In addition to monitoring your internal state, you’ll want to listen deeply to the emotional state of the other person. Listen until the other person is talked out. You might even ask, “Is there more?” There is a lot of value in the other person being heard before you speak. You want them to know that you are taking their concerns seriously.

When there are different points of view, “Yes, and...” is a great conversational tool. It’s one of the keys of successful improvisational acting. Improvisation requires building on what the other player is doing, taking it another step, and then adding your twist if you want to change the scene. A conversation works the same way. Saying “Yes” acknowledges the person, but doesn't necessarily mean that you are agreeing with what they said. You are affirming them AND then leading in another direction.

A conversation might go like this: Employee, “I should be able to look at Facebook during my shift.” You say, “Yes, I understand, and while I appreciate your interest in staying connected with friends, I'm concerned that there is important work that needs your full concentration. Perhaps you could do Facebook on your breaks so you can keep the quality of your work high.” Try “Yes, and…” to keep your conversations moving more smoothly in a productive direction.

We don’t look forward to difficult conversations, but they are essential to effectively running a business – or a life, for that matter. You can get your fear behind you by practicing these conversational skills and get better outcomes for yourself and others. Yes! And... happy employees and customers make for a happier and more confident you.

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge , CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants who help small business and non-profits overcome the marketing and motivational myths that are keeping them and their businesses from unbounded success. AnneBob@CreativeCore.com – www.NLPeople.com .

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