Contrary to the decline we have seen in public discourse in recent years, not every uncomfortable interaction has to devolve into a torrent of insults and vitriol. There are ways to approach tense, even adversarial, conversations with the confidence that you can achieve the outcome you want without a volatile exchange. The next time you have to deliver a difficult message to a colleague, a customer, or even your boss, try these suggestions:
Begin with honesty.
If you or your company made a mistake, admit it. Nothing creates a basis for agreement more than trust and nothing promotes trust more than honesty. A simple, “we dropped the ball and we want to make it right” is sometimes all it takes to turn a situation around. No excuses. Remember to be honest with yourself about how to realistically move forward.
Know the facts.
Suppose you are asked to defend a decision that you don’t fully understand. Create lists of what you know and what you don’t know so that you can ask the right questions to prepare for the conversation. Keep accurate records so that when the time comes to make your case, you’ll have all the information you need to demonstrate in a clear, concise manner why you are correct. There’s no need to shout. Let the facts speak for themselves.
Bad news will always provoke a response. People will want to lament how they’ve been treated unfairly. They may see themselves as a victim. They may connect your message to a past experience where their interests were not protected. No matter how irrational it seems, hear them out. Notice the words they choose and be ready to repeat them back in a question such as, “When you said X, did you mean Y or is it more like Z?”
This does two things:
- It lets the person know they’ve been heard.
- It helps you reframe the conversation and pivot from disappointment to resolution.
No one, not a boss, a customer, or a co-worker has the right to treat you with disrespect. With that in mind, you can approach any situation with the knowledge that you have the power to decide just how much you will allow a person to rant or vent. You have complete control over your own response. Sometimes that means you have to stand your ground. Sometimes you have to walk away.
Imagine the possible.
Play out the scenario in your head. Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Anything short of a violent altercation is probably within your capacity to handle. When you deliver unpleasant news – a project is taking longer than expected, the report had an egregious error that your team didn’t catch, circumstances outside your control have made a transaction unprofitable – whatever it is, focus on what you CAN do rather than what you cannot. This may mean negotiating a compromise or managing expectations. It may mean asking for help.
Conflict happens. Don’t let fear rob you of the opportunity to rise to the occasion. When you find yourself tasked with an uneasy conversation, communicate with the intent to help others make the best of a difficult situation.
You just might discover you are good at it.