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Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are exactly that. Difficult. We often resist them or procrastinate about

having them. We may go as far as to avoid the person involved so as not to be drawn into a

conversation where we might say the wrong thing. We often become anxious about how the

other person will receive the feedback and how this might impact our on-going relationship

with them.


Part of any healthy relationship is the ability to give and receive feedback and thankfully this

is a skill that we can learn. You may be in a work environment struggling with unwanted

behaviours or the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities. You may be a leader

of a company and have observed the behaviours of someone that is causing others to be

detrimentally impacted. You may be part of a family or friendship group where disrespect is

being shown. All of these examples are valid reasons for giving honest feedback and

knowing why we need to have a difficult conversation is the first part of planning it.


Despite understanding the need for the conversation, we still often delay it. This is usually

due to our fear of how the other person will react. We may worry that they will reject us along with our feedback. We may have tried to have a conversation about the issue before and it hasn’t gone well. These are understandable reasons to delay, however in my experience, putting off the conversation that needs to be had, only exacerbates the difficulty. Unwanted behaviours become more entrenched, our frustration rises, and anxiety can set in as the issue and our responses to it, drag on.


Step one. Plan the conversation. Arrange a private space with no distractions and enough

time so that it doesn’t get rushed. You are aiming at discussing the issue, rather than a one-

way message. Give adequate time for each perspective to be talked about and hopefully

understood. The worst way to give honest feedback is in an ad hoc or unplanned way where

it is thrown into an existing conversation without the context or environment in place to

support the person receiving the feedback. Even the most confident of people are sensitive

to feedback. As the givers of the feedback, we hold the responsibility to deliver it with

respect and care for the person receiving it.


Step two. Craft your words so that they are soft on the person and hard on the issue. This

means that we focus on the issue or unwanted behaviour rather than on the personality or

character traits of the person involved. For example, “how do you feel about the workplace

as I observe you talking about things not feeling right, can we talk about our communicate

styles especially on issues that we both care about or, how can our friendship work so we

are both happy in it.” Wording the content of the discussion in this way helps prevent it from

being personalised. When we are being hard on the person, we say things like, “you are

always complaining / opinionated, and all my friends think you are., or “the whole team

thinks this.” It takes a long time to recover from this style of giving feedback. Not only is the

receiver of it having to cope with the feedback but they now know that others feel the same

about them. It is an unkind style of communicating that tends to weaken and isolate the

person who they are giving feedback to, while elevating and legitimising their words. This

style of giving feedback is rarely accurate but unfortunately it is often used.


Step three. Give equal amounts of care and clarity to your message. Too much care and the

receiver will not understand the importance of your message and too little care, the message

may seem too harsh. You are wanting to preserve the relationship and hopefully grow the

understanding between you rather than break the relationship down. If you set a safe scene

for discussion and keep to being curious about the issue rather than judging the person,

then you are doing all that you can for the receiver of the feedback to feel that they can

contribute to the conversation and not simply react to it.


Step four. Not all feedback is correct and it is certainly legitimate to question it. Someone

may have labelled you in a way that you do not agree with or misinterpreted something you

did. You may agree in part but not to the level described. Part of your planning is to be

prepared for a discussion to see what applies and what doesn’t.


Step five. Active listening is crucial to the giving and receiving of feedback. Next month I will

write on what active listening looks like. It is surprisingly hard to do!


However carefully and well-intentioned honest feedback is given, it can still go wrong. I am

sure we have all heard the words, “how dare you say that, you are no better, what about the

time you did..” and so on it goes. In the workplace it is usually said in a more controlled way

and is often communicated as, “I don’t agree, s/he did this to me, I want to elevate this

conversation up now.” These responses create doubt in our minds as to whether we were

right to raise the issue in the first place. Creating doubt is a trick people who do not receive

feedback well, will use in the hope that the conversation will end there. Its takes nerve to

stand your ground and again request a conversation to address the issue that you believe

needs to be addressed. In the workplace we often have an obligation to continue with it if it

we are in a leadership role. In our family and friendship circles, we sometimes let it go.


We are only partly responsible for a good outcome to a difficult conversation. What is in our

control is our ability to create a planned and carefully thought-through way of giving the

feedback. What is out of our control is the way it will be picked up and reacted to. We are all

accountable for our own behaviours. No matter how someone reacts to a planned difficult

conversation, we can feel good about how we have delivered it.