28 Jun 2021
How to have difficult conversations without your emotions getting in the way
In the workplace, difficult conversations can range from disagreements with other leaders, having to dismiss an employee, admitting failure that you really messed up – or, it could even be dealing with a customer who’s really upset. While we instinctively want to avoid difficult conversations, having the ability to conduct them effectively gives leaders a superpower.
Why it’s crucial to manage your emotional state
Most of us inwardly grimace at the idea of managing a situation involving conflict. It’s unsurprising that our emotional state can easily undermine our ability to manage difficult conversations. In fact, most leaders feel this way (as we explain here).
The secret to success is simple. Acknowledge that you can’t change the other person, learn how to choose your mindset and always prepare for the potential conflict.
How to stay focused and avoid being hijacked by your emotions
Here are five key areas recommended by our Mantle leadership experts to help you avoid difficult conversations becoming an emotional rollercoaster.
1. Always plan your desired outcome
Just like you would plan for any important business discussion, never go into a difficult conversation without first defining your desired outcome. Two useful questions to ponder are:
- What is the other person experiencing – what is going on for them?
- What is my goal or outcome for this conversation?
Having a clear outcome helps stabilise your thoughts if the conversation becomes heated.
2. Start by acknowledging your responsibility in the situation
Authentically accept some responsibility up-front. It could be acknowledging that you may have avoided the situation by dealing with it sooner. Or, perhaps it’s recognising that an action you’ve taken has contributed to the situation.
This immediately diffuses the other person’s heightened emotions and promotes their ability to listen when it comes time for you to tackle the crux of the matter.
3. Always be specific
If the difficult conversation requires you to deliver some tricky feedback, always remember to be clear and specific. Structure this around what you notice and wonder. For example:
- “I noticed that this week’s KPI report was particularly challenging to get completed on time.”
- “I wonder if there is anything I can do to support you?”
At Mantle, we also like Simon Sinek’s approach for being specific about the behaviours, the impact and your feelings. (This podcast hosted by Simon makes for an interesting listen.)
Take this example:
- “When you didn’t complete the client report I asked you to create (behaviour)…
- I felt anxious (feelings) about how the client would feel (impact)…
- I felt disappointed (feelings) that you hadn’t asked for help…
- My concern is that if this continues to happen, I will feel unable to rely on you (impact).”
4. Listen to the other person and validate their feelings
Once you’ve opened the conversation, the other person is going to react or rebut your statements. Simply listen to their opinion and validate how they are feeling. Try:
- “I can see why this has been difficult.”
- Or, “Now I understand why you were avoiding me.”
- Or, “It sounds like a very frustrating situation for you.”
This immediately shift the discussion from being defensive to becoming productive.
5. Re-state the outcome and start collaborating on the solution
Once you have successfully defused the emotional intensity of the conversation, and clearly defined the issue at-hand, it’s then possible to begin collaborative problem-solving.
Define the outcome of what needs to happen post-meeting. If appropriate, incorporate ‘likelihood’ and ‘when’ to encourage follow-through. For example:
- “We have talked about you improving the report template (outcome)…”
- “Can I ask are you likely (likelihood) to find the time to complete this by next Monday (when)…”
Give the other person the opportunity to decide between the best solutions for them.
You can’t change the other person, but you can choose your mindset
If you find the confidence and the courage to choose to have these conversations, and invest the time in mastering your ability to conduct them successfully, you will be astonished at how much easier it becomes to manage conflict.
You’ll find more suggestions about staying calm under pressure when it comes to difficult conversations here.
Leadership advice from New Zealand’s experts
The team at Mantle are ideally placed to support you, and other leaders within your organisation, when it comes to mastering essential skills like conflict resolution. To learn how we can help, simply contact us now.