5 Steps To Navigating Difficult Conversations

5 Steps To Navigating Difficult Conversations

Communicating with people is how we get things done. Of the various methods of communicating, the spoken word is the most widely used. It’s widely believed that the average person speaks over 7,000 words a day. Given this high volume of speech, you would think most people take steps to be good at it. They don’t.

In my work as an executive and speech coach, I am constantly amazed at how little attention people pay to being better communicators. Because we do it so often, we tend to take it for granted.

The Difficult Conversation

Of the many types of interactions people participate in every day, I find the most challenging is what I call the “difficult conversation.” This type of exchange can take many forms. It could be firing someone, demoting someone, breaking off a relationship, giving a performance review, managing a personal conflict, handling a challenging situation with a customer or client, or being confronted with an angry board member or another influential colleague.

In any of these situations, the conversation is made more difficult due to the emotional energy involved, as well as our human ego stepping in, either to defend or attack. When you add in the differences between personalities, it is quite clear why this particular type of human interaction is fraught with challenges.

One way to make these situations more manageable is to do what I call “sweat in advance.” This means putting in the effort to develop positive relationships with those you work or interact with often so that when tough times come up, there is less animosity involved. Even in highly emotional settings, if there is a solid relationship between the parties involved, it tends to allow for a more manageable conversation.

Steps To Prepare

Rather than simply jumping in and engaging, there are several steps to consider when approaching a difficult conversation. If you have time to prepare, these may lead to a more positive result.

1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

This is rule no. 5 of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, and I believe it is rule no. 1 when dealing with the difficult conversation. Human nature compels us to want to “win,” as our ego strives to ensure our survival. But when you first seek to understand the other person’s position or point of view, before stating yours, you begin to break down some of their defenses. I suggest using a “you start” template, as in, “We have this problem that we need to address. Why don’t you start.” This helps deploy Covey’s rule.

2. Listen with intention.

Most of us think we are good listeners when we are actually selfish listeners—meaning we listen well only when we find it beneficial to do so. Being an intentional listener, in contrast, means you listen with the full intention of understanding what is being told to you. Try not to start formulating your response as the other is explaining their position. Truly hearing the other’s point of view may alter your own perception of the situation.

3. Clarify what you heard.

This provides both parties with a chance to agree on the issue. You could say something like, “So what I hear you saying is …” or “If I understand correctly, you said …” This also tells the other person that you are attempting to really understand them.

4. Have a structured response.

Instead of simply responding with whatever comes to mind, have a structured response that helps you be clear and concise. There are several templates I can recommend here. They are:

• PREP: State your Position, provide Reasons, share Evidence and then restate your Position.

• SOS: Restate the Situation, provide Options, then share your Solution from those options.

• PPF: Share how this was handled in the Past, what you are doing in the Present and where you see things in the Future.

5. Agree on next steps.

After the conversation has ended, get agreement on what the next steps are—who will be doing what and what the expected outcome should be. Then follow up with all parties with a written summary and any calendar reminders for future events.


Being good at verbal communication is key to being successful in any endeavor. Rather than simply winging it, try using these tips to make your next difficult conversation easier and less stressful.

Written by: John Lowe, Executive Faculty, Coach and Business Presentations Expert

Read Forbes article here.

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