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5 Tips for starting a difficult conversation

There are so many things we can find difficult.

We may have to give some challenging feedback, break bad news, apologise for and resolve a problem caused by our organisation, or  team for which we are accountable.

Sometimes it’s not the topic but the person that causes the difficulty. You may have a personality clash with the individual or find their attitude challenging.

You may have further complications –  you might not have met the individual in person, they may work different shifts, be on a different continent, have a different first language, or you have nowhere private to hold the conversation.

Whatever the conversation, the principles below are likely to be useful to consider as you plan how you will open and hold your conversation.

  1. Check your mind-set

If you call it a ‘difficult’ conversation – it probably will be – difficult- that is. Would it be more helpful to call it an important conversation, a critical conversation or a challenging one? Using any of these terms will probably put you in a better frame of mind to have the conversation.  Your attitude to the problem will leak through in your body language so check it carefully beforehand.

  1. Be honest

If you are finding it a challenge to find the right words – say so when you begin and explain that your intent is to improve the situation. It can help to rehearse some questions or points out loud in advance so you begin to find words that sound comfortably like you and not a text book.

  1. Consider 3 perspectives

You are very likely to have spent some time considering your own perspective on the issue.

What will the other person be thinking and feeling? Have you really considered what it will feel like to receive your message? How do you want them to feel after the conversation? Will they have had a chance to feel heard and respected?

The third perspective is that of a ‘fly on the wall’. If you took a neutral observer’s view of the situation – what would you deduce? Is it a high quality conversation, with deep listening from both parties?

  1. Be crystal clear

What PRECISELY is the issue you want to raise? Many of us have a feeling about something –‘your attitude is a bit slap dash’. We need to be able to really specifically articulate what the situation is and what you want to discuss or change. ‘In the reports that you produce, accuracy is vital so please recheck your output, use spell check and consider revisiting 24 hours after you have produced them to get a fresh view before sending through’.

  1. Start the conversation

Many of us put these conversations off.  This strategy rarely works, as typically in the absence of other information most people think what they have been doing to date is acceptable. Start the conversation at the earliest opportunity. Some conversations will take place in one event; others will be a series of conversations moving forward each time.  Be realistic about what you can expect to achieve in one conversation.


About Claire

Claire is our Aziz expert who has specialised in Leadership and Management Development, in particular helping individuals and teams have the right conversations to move their business and people forward.

Claire is very pragmatic.  Her approach to development is that it should make sense and be actionable in the participant’s world. Sound concepts and theories will underpin much of her work, but this is delivered in a refreshingly jargon-free way.

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 40 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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