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So often the anticipation of having a "difficult conversation" is worse than the reality of actually having the conversation. We build it up in our heads, avoid it and imagine the worst case scenario for it.  We may feel too emotional about a topic to hold a productive conversation or we may anticipate the subject may be too emotional for the other person so we may avoid it for too long.  

I recently had the opportunity to teach a few half day classes on behalf of Bluepoint Leadership for a financial services client; this particular client is going through a major transformation in how they provide technology services internally.   As a self-described "nice" culture, the organization's leadership wanted to enhance technology leaders capacity to confront business leaders productively and transparently, and help business partners to own the change implementation process alongside the technology function; thus, they needed to build managers confidence and competence in leading delicate conversations with the internal client groups they serve.  

 So often, what makes the difference between a difficult and productive conversation is our level of care and planning in advance of the conversation.  What I increasingly appreciate in reflecting on this topic intensely over the last several weeks is that our tolerance and savvy for difficult conversations grows exponentially the more we do it. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself and also practice answering with a thought partner when you are thinking about broaching a difficult conversation with someone else at work or in your life:

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5 Questions from Bluepoint Leadership for Overcoming Barrier of Having Difficult Conversation:

1.)  How could having this conversation positively advance the cause?

2.) What could be the worst case scenario of having this conversation?

3.) What would be ideal outcome of having this conversation?  

4.) Do you care enough about this person, this work and the beneficial outcomes to broach this topic?

5.) What is the most constructive, positive next step(s) you can take to prepare for the conversation? 

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In addition, I want to share four key steps in organizing your thinking for leading a difficult conversation where you want to drive change.  I came up with this acronym in teaching Bluepoint's 5 step model for difficult conversations, as I wanted to simplify the number of things you have to think about when you are already feeling anxious in anticipation of a difficult discussion.  These steps need not happen chronologically in every situation, but they certainly offer a logical flow if you do choose to follow the order of the framework laid out below.  

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ACED: A Framework for Leading Difficult Conversations: 

  • A ffirm the person.  This is about acknowledging and seeing this person three dimensionally.  It can be as simple as empathizing with what they might be going through, appreciating the relationship you have with this person, and/or it can be speaking to shared values you have around a particular project or outcome.  It also may be authentically acknowledging their past contributions and/or talents in some way.   
     
  • C onfront the facts.  This is the part of the conversation that often puts the pit in our stomachs!  Here is where we need to share what may feel like hard news or uncomfortable feedback.  How we share this information may make the difference between someone being receptive and open to change vs. being defensive and dismissive.  Key tips are speaking to observed facts, results and behaviors, and also discussing impact of behavior on others, yourself and/or the larger context.  It may be acknowledging the gaps and also the desired goals that you are working toward.
     
  • E xplore the options.   I equate this portion of the conversation to the coaching portion of the conversation.  This is your opportunity to expand the context and viewpoint of the person with whom you are speaking.   You want to think about widening the lens and allowing them to see from fresh perspective.  You also want to support this person to feel ownership and choice in how to resolve or move forward in this situation.  Open ended questions should be used throughout a difficult conversation, but should be leaned upon heavily in this portion of the conversation. 
     
  • D rive change forward.   This is final phase of the conversation where you need to do two things: 1.) enhance another person's confidence and motivation for working toward the desired vision and outcome and 2.) help them think practically about the immediate next steps for organizing 

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 In teaching this topic, I have had to ask myself whether I am fully seizing every opportunity I have to be a positive change agent as a coach and consultant, a parent, a friend and colleague, and as a concerned citizen.  I realize that with lots of practice, it has become much easier and even seamless for me to regularly confront difficult topics, and also to make those "difficult" conversations natural, respectful and even enjoyable. 

Especially in today's climate, where political outcomes and decisions in Washington, DC may have thrown us for a loop, it's grounding and affirming to be able to speak up and impact change in our sphere of influence.   It seems there is no better time to be able to navigate and confront meaningful topics, in face of an increasingly volatile national and international climate.  

Here is to many productive and meaningful conversations that lead to positive outcomes in 2017!