How top leaders manage having difficult conversations | Mantle
Mantle Leadership Final

25 Jun 2021

How top leaders manage having difficult conversations

The ability to successfully manage difficult conversations is a crucial skill for leaders. However, it can be a challenging one to master! We outline some simple strategies to help you successfully stay calm under pressure to ensure the best outcome for all involved.

Our physical response to difficult conversations

Difficult conversations cause us to not only experience uncomfortable emotions, they also can prompt a physical response.

As tensions rise, some common reactions include your palms beginning to sweat and your breathing becoming shorter and more rapid. Perhaps your shoulders tense in anticipation of the need to defend your opinion, or you clench your jaw.

These are all natural and important stress responses to the release of hormones (such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol) as we experience these types of heightened emotions. It’s an instinctive ‘fight, flight and freeze’ reaction to conflict.

When it comes to leadership, our Mantle experts characterise it as a ‘red brain’ mindset.

Staying in the right leadership mindset

In a red brain mindset, our limbic brain is firmly in charge. Our ability to think clearly is impaired and our rational thinking tends to shut down.

In this state, our judgement and reasoning is being impacted. It’s ironic that we tend to get swept away by our emotions at a time when it’s most crucial that we stay calm and in control!

Trying to emotionally self-regulate and remain in a ‘green’ state of rational thinking is the single most important thing you can do. It not only benefits yourself, but it also allows you to empathise and then help the other person you are having the discussion with.

Use an inclusive approach

Taking an inclusive approach helps you better manage your emotions, the situation and the outcome for all those involved. Here are a few simple suggestions that can have a powerful impact:

  • Create a more comfortable environment – sit down and encourage the other person to sit too, if they are willing.
  • Allow them to express their opinion without interruption – once they are finished, you can start to ask questions about what’s happened. The aim is to shift their mindset into a problem-solving mode.
  • Show that you are listening and attentive – aim to maintain eye contact and use your body language to show you are open and engaged.
  • Recognise and acknowledge the other person’s behaviour and emotions – for example, “I can see that would be a very frustrating situation” or “I appreciate you letting me know how you feel.”
  • Avoid telling the person what to do, or that they need to calm down.
  • Use inclusive language to create a sense of camaraderie – such as, “I notice that we are having trouble communicating.”
  • If the conversation is becoming combative, don’t be afraid to ask for a short break – but always ensure you resume the conversation as promised. Try, “I can see things are getting a bit heated, how about we stop for a quick coffee and I’ll meet you back here in 5 minutes.”

Always avoid raising your voice, as this undermines your ability to communicate and have an influence on the outcome.

Don’t put off having difficult conversations

You may be heartened to know that in our work with some of New Zealand’s top leaders, we are yet to come across anyone who welcomes the opportunity to have difficult conversations! However, it’s important that this skill is mastered in order to manage conflict within a workplace. If you, or the leaders in your organisation, could benefit from some more expert advice, our team at Mantle are here to help. Simply contact us now.