Think about the last time you had to have a tricky conversation with someone - you know, one of those occasions when you'd rather be in a dentist's chair than having to broach a sensitive subject. Has one come to mind?
The memory of this day is burned into my brain; It was the time I had to face up to a very difficult manager. Let’s not beat around the bush here; he was a workplace bully and I'd had a very difficult time with him for a boss. I often felt uncomfortable speaking to him and now here I was, having to break it to him that I was leaving the organisation.
I knew he would react badly because that was the way he operated. I had a fair idea that he’d rant, rave and yell and that there was a better than even chance he would actually try to have me removed from the building without serving out my notice. As I managed a fabulous team at the time, I felt very strongly about fulfilling my notice period and doing a proper handover to my successor.
As you can imagine, the days and hours leading up to that conversation were an anxious time. While I’ve worked in communications in one form or another for my entire career I had never approached a conversation with a full communication strategy in mind. In this case, I made an exception – and I’m very glad I did.
We all have situations when the stakes are critical, when we must have a conversation about a sensitive topic and we know the other person isn’t going to like it. Most of us avoid conversations like this, but they have to be had.
Here’s what I learned from that experience – insights I’ve taken with me and put to good use in the years since. I’m a huge fan of preparation for any communication activity, but we generally don’t think about rehearsing for a critical conversation because we can’t control what the other person will do or say. However, it is possible to prepare and practise your overall approach.
Get in the right state
Regardless of the situation, you are always in total control of how you feel and react. Preparing for an important conversation starts with making sure you’re in the calmest state possible. We all have different approaches to achieving this; do whatever works for you. It might be deep breathing, listening to music, meditating, going for a walk, taking time away from other people in the hour immediately before the meeting, reading some inspirational statements or saying affirmative statements to yourself. You definitely don’t want to be rushing into the conversation unfocused and harried. Stay in control by managing your state immediately before the talk.
At this point you won’t know what the outcome will be, but you can go in with a positive attitude; expecting something good to come from the situation. Sometimes we need to play-act a little to ourselves to create a positive mindset; imagine the difference if you walk through the door with a glower on your face, compared to being able to summon up something positive at the start of the conversation. The other person will immediately sense your mood, and it will help set the tone of the interaction.
Whether you truly believe you’ll get a positive result or you’re quaking in your boots, you can still set your mindset in a constructive frame.
Be clear on what you want
You need to start with the end in mind when you go into a conversation of this nature. What do you want to walk away with? What is negotiable and what's a show-stopper for you?
Starting with an unclear objective is an invitation to the other person to imprint their needs and wants over the top of yours. No doubt there’ll be some give, take and negotiation; you might not get everything want, but you need to be clear on your goal before you start.
Being clear stretches to visualising the positive outcome in your mind. Imagine yourself walking out, feeling relieved and upbeat about the result of the conversation. Even if you don’t feel it deep down, you have the power to hold these images in your mind and they will colour your words and actions. Your clarity and positive approach will be written all over your face and directly influence your body language, tone of voice and the words you choose, which in turn will contribute to the result.
If you go in already visualising a negative outcome, there’s a pretty good chance that’s how it will play out. See the possibilities and opportunities rather than the negatives.
Know who you’re talking to
There are different styles of communication, and everyone has their own habits. As part of your preparation, think about the person you’ll be speaking with; what do you know about them and how they like to receive communication?
Are they a person who likes a little formality or do they prefer to keep things casual? That might influence the setting you choose for the conversation (if you have any control over that part of the interaction). Do they like humour or is it better to keep it serious? Have you noticed they tend to think in pictures? If so, you could use visual references such as “what does this look like to you?” “The way I see it…” etc. Do they like to have diagrams or data as part of a conversation?
The more you know your audience and tailor your approach, the more receptive they’ll be to your message. Remember, effective communication is always about the audience, not the person initiating the communication.
Know your key message and stick to it
I’m the worst offender at this; so often I’ve gone into an important meeting or conversation not having thought through exactly what I need to say. Even the shortest amount of preparation will help you get a better result. Ask yourself; if I walk out of this meeting and the other person takes only one of two things away, what are those messages? Be clear about them, write them down if you need to, and make sure you actually deliver them on the day. This is where practice helps. Stand in front of a mirror and say the words out loud (yes, you’ll feel like a goose, but it will be worth it).
If the going gets tough during the conversation, you might need to resort to the broken record technique and calmly and patiently repeat your key message, slightly rephrased each time. You can’t do this if you don’t know what that message is.
Watch body language
Be proactive in the way you approach the conversation. Don’t slouch, but lean slightly towards the other person - not too much or you’ll come across as aggressive.
Make healthy eye contact; look them in the eye but don’t stare them down. Say your piece calmly, and allow them to say theirs. Demonstrate active listening by nodding in appropriate places and confirming you have heard them by repeating back key points. If you don’t agree, you can acknowledge the validity of their opinion and restate yours by saying something like “I can understand what you’re saying, I have a different view and it’s this…”
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Back to that conversation that kept me awake for the weeks leading up to it. For the first time in my life, I consciously focused on mindset preparation before a meeting. As a result, I was able to go in feeling almost detached – it was like an out-of-body experience, with me observing myself and my then boss with an objective eye.
I'd identified and practised my key messages and knew exactly what outcome I wanted, and I convinced myself to feel confident about getting there. You see, I knew that he would be angry; in fact I planned on it. It was like I had a little tick box in the corner of my mind, so if he did explode in a rage I could mentally tick that off and move on without being derailed by it. I had another mental tick box for the moment I expected he would try to have me thrown out of the building.
And in fact, both of my predictions came to pass; he did erupt in anger and asked me to leave the building immediately. I mentally ticked my two boxes, then simply kept broken-recording my key messages. I was amazed at how calm I was able to stay.
While the scene certainly wasn't pretty and we didn't part great friends, by the end of the conversation I had the outcome I was seeking. I had delivered my resignation calmly and professionally in spite of his response. I had kept my dignity intact, and I was able to then sit down with my team to explain that I was leaving, and work out my notice so I could finish up in the job appropriately.
It was a stressful encounter, but to this day I’m so grateful for the experience. It taught me a great lesson about my personal power in any situation, as long as I’ve done the planning and my mindset is in the right place.
We can all do this in high stakes conversations. These steps are worth trying next time you need to have one of “those” chats. It’s far healthier than trying to communicate sensitive information by email or some other means, or avoiding the encounter all together – and you’ll learn amazing things about yourself along the way.
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