Most of us, at some time in our lives, have responded to conflict or disagreement in a way that we have later regretted.  Also, many of us may feel that we don’t always handle conflict or disagreement as well as we should?  In my last blog, the ABC of interpersonal-conflict: why we often struggle when stepping up to a difficult conversation, I wrote about the ABC of interpersonal conflict.  I explained how we often filter the objective facts through our own values and beliefs.

This has consequences for us, as we can perceive difference or opposition as a threat.  When we are faced with threats, real or imagined, we frequently revert to our most basic and primitive selves.  The primitive responses of fight, flight or freeze, are often employed to deal with difference or opposition.  When we are in this primitive state, our emotions of fear and anger drive our behaviour.  When fearful or angry we are unlikely to handle difficult conversations effectively.

In this blog I outline how to step up to a difficult conversation, handle it effectively, and get the outcome you desire.

At People Based Solutions we believe there are 8 key steps to effectively address a difficult conversation:

1.     Understand your problem
2.     Focus on the facts
3.     Identify the Gap
4.     Use active listening to show empathy and understanding
5.     Tentatively outline your concerns
6.     Look for win-win
7.     Agree an action plan with clear accountability, targets and due dates
8.     Follow it up and act
Understand your problem:
To understand your problem you have to “put your own mask on first”.  During the pre-flight safety checks they tell in the event of loss of cabin pressure that you must attend to your own mask before dealing with anyone who is dependent on you.  It is the same with a difficult conversation.  If you’re not in control of your feelings and emotions, how can you expect to manage a difficult conversation?
To understand your problem, remember your ABC’s. You should ask yourself the following questions:
  • What’s actually happened ?
  • What is that you believe that’s making you react this way?
  • What are the consequences for you, how is it making you feel?

Having remembered your ABC’s,  you should add D to AB and C

  • Dispute the beliefs and conclusions that are driving you to make the fools choice of clamming up or coming out fighting
  • Decide to be calm and assertive
  • Don’t get emotional, get the outcome you want

Focus on the facts:

When having a conversation about another person’s performance or behaviour, we need to focus on what they have done, not who they are. For example, if a person submits a report not to the standards required, it is reasonable to say:   “There was a lot of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in that report, I couldn’t submit it.”  However, it is not helpful to criticise them personally by saying something like: “You have no pride in your work.”  This will be perceived as a threat, to which they are likely to make a primitive response of fight, flight or freeze.

Identify the gap:

When addressing performance or behaviour that isn’t acceptable, it is important to be clear about the standards that have been set, how the behaviour or performance being observed doesn’t meet those standards, and to understand how the shortfall has occurred.  For example, the following question could be asked:  “That report you gave me was of such a poor standard, I couldn’t submit it.  Can you explain what happened?”

Use active listening to show empathy and understanding:

When conducting a difficult conversation it is important to encourage the other person by showing you are interested in what they have to say.   You should seek clarity by restating what they have said and by asking questions to help you understand. Where you’re not sure you should encourage the other person to explain further.  You should show you understand the person’s feelings or reasons by reflecting what they have said or the emotions that have expressed back to them.  You should show you have understood what they are saying and their point of view by summarising what they have said.  It is important to validate the other person’s concerns and contribution.

Tentatively outline your concerns:

It is important, when stepping up to a difficult conversation, to address any concerns that you have with what the other person is doing. However, these concerns must be stated honestly, respectfully and sensitively. Initially any concerns should be stated tentatively. For example:  If you are concerned that you’re being taken advantage of, rather than saying:  “ Because I’ve let it go in the past, you now think I’m a bit of a soft touch” you would be better saying: “this is the 3rd time you’ve been late in fortnight.  I am beginning to think because I let it go a few weeks ago, you now think you can get away with coming in when you like. Is there another explanation?”

Look for win-win:

Look to solve your problems by finding mutually acceptable outcomes that meet your needs, rather than defending positions.  In my recent blog:  The purpose of a productive negotiation is not to successfully defend your position, but to effectively meet your needs… I write that win-win is when both parties focus on their interests, and identify what they really want.   The objective then shifts from winning the argument, to seeing if there is a way to find a mutually satisfactory resolution to the problem or difference.

Agree an action plan with clear accountability, targets and due dates:

If actions are agreed as the result of a difficult conversation, it is important to assign accountability.  Accountability will be expressed as outcomes that state specifically, what each party is required to do. These outcomes must be unambiguous and describe exactly what’s wanted in detail.  These clear and unambiguous outcomes must have precise deadlines.

Follow up:

Depending on how crucial the outcome of the difficult conversation is, how much trust there is, and how able the parties are perceived to be to deliver the agreed outcomes. There should either be proactive follow up that anticipates and controls the outcome, or reactive follow up that audits what’s been done.

This article has been posted by Sean McCann, the Managing Director of People Based Solutions an HR consultancy specialising in developing emotional intelligence at work, team building, and workplace conflict resolution. If you would like to know more about how we can help you develop an assertive approach to workplace differences by:

  • Ensuring your managers are skilled with people
  • Helping you to recruit people who have an assertive approach to conflict and difference
  • Helping you to develop a culture where differences are acknowledged and addressed courteously
  • Train your managers to handle conflict effectivelyDelivering workplace mediation


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