Making Difficult Conversations Easier: 3 Quick Tips

Why Can’t We Talk?

two coworkers looking at laptop

A survey* of nearly 10,000 employees across 272 organizations revealed that a shocking 81% of people in a leadership or managerial role regularly avoid courageous conversations with their direct reports. Yet most leaders feel that the need to be able to share feedback with others is critical to their success. The same study also uncovered that 89% of employees avoid these conversations with their boss on a regular basis.

Why is it that we as bright, articulate, and caring human beings find it so difficult to talk candidly about challenging issues? Over 40 years of research on human behavior reveals that there are some predictable traps we fall into when discussing challenging topics or issues with others. When we lack the ability to navigate these challenges, we tend to avoid the conversations altogether.

The goal of a courageous conversation is for people to be rational as they explore the conversation topic and work out a solution. It is easier to engage in a discussion when you have a straightforward or routine topic to address. However, when you have a controversial, sensitive, or difficult issue that requires a courageous conversation, you need to do three things really well.

1. Maintain Composure

Maintain composure and be aware of your non-verbal body language. If you are standing up with your arms crossed, it will appear as if you are prepared for a battle, are closed off, and are in it to “win.” With this approach, you risk the other person shutting down before you begin. On the other hand, if you are sitting down, using a calm tone of voice, and looking relaxed instead of stressed or angry, you have a better chance of truly engaging in a two-way conversation and achieving your desired outcome.

2. Don’t Minimize the Issue

Share your information or point of view concisely and assertively. Be confident and affirmative with your statements. For example: “Tom, I am concerned about the accuracy of your reports. This week I noticed three more errors.” This is a simple, succinct observation. You are taking ownership for your concerns rather than bringing them up in a passive or casual manner that could minimize the issue. Minimizing problems can lead to them being ignored or growing in size rather than allowing for solutions to be developed and implemented.

3. Show Curiosity and Interest

Be open and curious about learning more. Avoid making statements that sound like you are absolute and fixed in your position. Instead, inquire and invite the other person to weigh in and share their perspective or debate your findings. For example, you could say something like, “These are the errors I identified. Can you help me understand why this is happening?” When you show curiosity and interest in their interpretation of the situation, you reduce the likelihood of defensiveness.

When people operate with full disclosure and understanding, interactions of all types—including confrontation—are much more constructive and become the foundation for high-performance organizations. To further develop these skills, visit our site to learn more about CMOE’s Courageous Conversations program, which is available as an on-demand digital learning solution, virtual instructor-led workshop, or in-person instructor-led program.

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About the Author

CMOE

CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.