Trying to approach difficult conversations is tough, right? Especially when they have the ability to go horribly wrong.
It’s not a nice feeling.
Can you remember a time when you’ve had to approach someone about something you’d rather avoid?
Or perhaps that time is now, and you have a challenging conversation looming over you that you need to have sooner rather than later, but you keep putting it off?
Unfortunately difficult conversations are part of our every day lives and they can range from anything that you don’t want to talk about, to full-blown confrontations about tense subjects, and we are usually reluctant to have these conversations out of fear of the consequences.
So when we finally do have them, we usually think and feel a lot more than we actually say, right?
But sometimes it just has to be done.
So how can you make it as painless as possible?
Because luckily there are ways to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain or anger in these situations.
First of all it’s all about inquiry and understanding.
And then it’s about knowing how the other person wants to be dealt with. How they want to be spoken to. How they want to be treated.
So let’s start with the basics…
- Always assume you don’t know everything.
As much as we like to think we know a lot, we can never know everything. So when you first approach someone about a difficult subject, assume you don’t know the whole story (cause most of the time you won’t).
When you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it will never go well if you start off by thinking you already know all there is to know about what happened.
So start off by coming from a place of inquiry. Ask for their side of the story (they’re probably going to give it to you anyway). Then…
- Try to understand their point of view.
As hard as it might be to accept, they may have a point. Let them have their chance to be listened to and to be understood.
“People almost never change without first feeling understood.” ― Douglas Stone.
One of the most important lessons I ever learned was – most of the time people’s frustration comes from a place of feeling misunderstood, or not listened to.
When someone is venting, they are frustrated and taking it out on others. 9 times out of 10 they just want someone to listen to them. They just need to feel like someone understands how they’re feeling. Even if you can’t solve the problem for them, just helping them feel understood can almost always defuse any tense situation.
It’s worth noting that difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. It’s about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, values, and levels of understanding.
I learnt this when dealing with some fairly angry customers a few years ago when working for Auckland Motorways. Everyone seemed to have some issue about the motorway in one way or another – the traffic, the road works, whatever. So I learnt fairly quickly that even though I couldn’t always solve their problems, if I just listened to their concerns and made them feel understood, that was half the battle. Sometimes they would even thank me at the end of the conversation even though I felt like I hadn’t really done anything?
But at the end of the day, the easiest way to deal with difficult conversations is…
- Learning to determine how the other person wants to be dealt with.
It’s about gaining the ability to get into their shoes.
If you know anything about the professional development training I do, you’ll know that there are four very different ways that people communicate. There are four different styles of communication (the four coloured DOTS – Purple, Yellow, Red, and Blue) and you have a fraction of all four in your communication style, but you are more dominant in one than the other three.
So there is one natural style of communication that you use most of the time when speaking to people, it comes natural to you, so you use it, and it colours all of your conversations with others.
So when you’re speaking to someone…
- If you’re dominant in Purple you’re more likely to talk rather than listen.
- If you’re dominant in Yellow you process words into complex pictures inside your head in order to interpret what someone is saying.
- If you’re dominant in Red you won’t talk much, but when you do it will be in short sharp bursts (like bullet points).
- If you’re dominant in Blue you’ll talk more if you feel comfortable with the person you’re speaking to.
As you can see, each style is quite unique.
So if you’re having a difficult conversation with someone, wouldn’t it make sense to know which style they might be so that you can tailor your approach to suit their style?
Then they are far more likely to respond well if you’re speaking “their language” so to speak.
And it’s easy enough to do this with the techniques we teach by looking at the way they are dressed, what their environment (their room, car, office) looks like, and certain words they use. With these techniques you can quickly and accurately predict the likely style of the person you’re speaking with, and then adjust your communication slightly to be able to get along with them better.
Then you can address the difficult conversation in the way they need so that they will respond in the best possible way.
- If they are Purple – you need to ask them questions rather than lecture (what happened etc.) and don’t make it personal!
- If they are Yellow – they will probably react without fully listening but you need to let them complain and then explain why they are complaining. Give them a timeline for improvement as they are very time conscious.
- If they are Red – just tell it how it is, don’t fudge or avoid certain details. But you must be sure of your facts (don’t rely on hearsay as the truth is very important to them).
- If they are Blue – don’t come across as confronting in any way. They will avoid confrontation at any cost! Let them know that they are valued and let them feel comfortable enough to be honest with you.
And at the end of the day, never blame or criticize someone when having a difficult conversation. This will almost always result in defensive behaviour.
Think about it…
As soon as someone blames you for something, or criticizes you in some way, isn’t your first reaction to defend yourself?
All this will do is cause them to become further set in their argument and want to prove you wrong (even if they know it’s not right).
“The urge to blame is based . . . on the fear of being blamed.” ― Douglas Stone.
Don’t turn it into a blame game – that’s never fun.
Think about why you’re having the conversation… to come to some sort of resolution, right?
So the best way to do that is, come from a place of inquiry and understanding, then try to approach them in a way they will appreciate – the way they want to be dealt with.
To find out more about how you can get trained in the art of understanding others and making difficult conversations easier, take a look at the services we offer and contact us below if you would like to advance your skills in this area with our DOTS people-skills training.
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