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
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.