11/12/2014 10:09 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

Are You Avoiding Having a Difficult Conversation?

Not many people enjoy having challenging conversations. You know the ones; you don't agree and the emotions are likely to be strong. Some examples might be:

  • Dealing with offensive behavior from a co-worker
  • Giving the boss negative feedback
  • Giving a poor performance review
  • Critiquing a colleague's work

Recall your last crucial conversation. What happened? Did it go well? If not, here are some tips for success next time.

1. Be clear in your own head before you start about what outcome you want and what outcome you don't want. For example: I want Eric to understand the impact his behavior has on the team and to make a commitment to change. I don't want to upset him by handling this badly. Think about and plan for how to go about getting what you really want and avoiding what you don't want and how you would behave if you really wanted this outcome.

2. Pay attention to your own and others' reactions during the conversation. Look for heightened emotions and signs of defensiveness. Example: I am noticing that Eric is getting flushed and looks like he is pretty upset. I have raised my voice in response.

3. Create safety in the conversation. Apologize if needed and clarify what you do intend and what you don't intend. "I am sorry that I raised my voice just then. What I intend is to give you some open and honest feedback that I believe will help your relationship with the rest of the team. What I don't want to do is to give that feedback in a way that isn't constructive."

4. Create mutual intent, which is something that you can agree on. "Eric, wouldn't you agree that having great relationships in a team is something that we should aspire to? And we all have our part to play in creating good relationships? If the relationships are strained, that we should work on them?"

5. Share your story. Make sure that you are talking about the issue and not skirting around it, that you are expressing your own view, not hiding behind it. ("I think you are great, it's the others that think this"). Instead, be candid about your thoughts and feelings. "Eric, I have noticed that sometimes you can be pretty blunt with people. When you have done it with me, I find it can be off-putting and I feel taken aback. Then I feel less likely to want to work closely with you."

6. Create space for others to share their story. Ask questions to actively explore other viewpoints. "Eric, tell me what is going on for you? What are you feeling?" Watch out for three common defensive strategies:

  • Victim - it's not my fault
  • Aggressor - it's all someone else's fault
  • Avoider - there's nothing else I can do

Ask good questions, paraphrase what you hear and be prepared to prompt if the person remains silent. "Eric, if it were me, I know I would find this difficult to hear. I might be feeling resentful and disappointed."

7. Build consensus. Find points you do agree on and work from there. "Eric, I hear that we are both agreeing that teamwork is important, and that sometimes we don't all get along. I am also hearing you say that you are feeling overworked and that you get grumpy because of that."

8. Be clear about actions. "We are agreed that we will review your workload over the next two weeks. We agreed that you try to be aware of your moods and how they impact others, and that I will give you feedback 'in the moment' as I notice things."

Authentic communication, which involves being candid about feelings as well as thoughts, creates trust and puts everyone in a much better position to solve the problem. It feels a lot better too!