March 2019 Newsletter: How to Handle Crucial Conversations at Work

Whether it is with your boss, co-worker, or client, difficult conversations are challenging to manage, and the fear of failure can sometimes be paralyzing. The key to ensuring the best outcome for everyone involved is knowing how to manage the exchange.

Kevin Grey, one of Warren Whitney’s Human Resource professionals, has provided us with the crucial steps to ensure a smooth, successful, and productive discussion.

The Steps to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

Step 1. Get yourself in the right mindset by asking yourself these questions.

  1. What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish and what is an ideal outcome?
  2. What assumptions are you making about this person’s intent? Be cautious about making any presumptions.
  3. Which “buttons” of yours are being pushed? Are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Be aware of your heightened emotional state.
  4. How does this person perceive the situation? Are they aware there is a problem? What solution do you think they would suggest?
  5. What are your needs and fears? What are theirs? How have either of you contributed to the problem?

Step 2. Understand your emotional state and don’t forget to breathe.

No matter how well the conversation begins, you’ll need to stay in charge of yourself, your purpose, and your emotional energy. Your attitude toward the conversation will influence your perception of it. Being positive will impact its effectiveness. Be mindful of your body language.

Step 3. Cultivate an attitude of discovery and curiosity.

Pretend you don’t know anything and try to learn as much as possible about the other person’s point of view.  What do they really want? What are they not saying? Do you know all the facts?

Let them talk until they are finished; don’t interrupt them other than to show your understanding of what they are saying. Most importantly, do not take it personally. Your goal is to learn as much as you can.

Step 4. Acknowledge the other person’s position.

Acknowledgment shows you are listening. Explain what you think is really going on from their perspective; anticipate their hopes and honor their position. People rarely change their position unless they see you understanding. Also, take ownership of your role, this will help move the conversation forward. Lastly, know that acknowledging and agreeing are not the same. Saying, “this sounds really important to you,” doesn’t mean you are going along with their decision.

Step 5. Clarify your perspective without minimizing theirs.

When you sense that the other has fully expressed his or her side, then it’s your turn. Clarify what you think they may have missed and explain yourself without minimizing their point of view. For example: “From what you’ve told me, I can see how you came to the conclusion that I’m not a team player. But I think I am. When I introduce problems with a project, I’m thinking about its long-term success. I don’t mean to be a critic, though perhaps I sound like one. Maybe we can talk about how to address these issues so that my intention is clear.” 

Step 6. You’re ready to problem solve.

Now you can start building solutions. Brainstorming and asking questions are essential. Ask what they think might work and then find something you like and build on it. If the conversation becomes adversarial, go back to asking questions. The result will be sustainable solutions.

Additional tips and suggestions are:

Practice, practice, practice.

  • Acknowledge everyone’s emotional energy and direct it toward a useful purpose.
  • Know and return to your purpose at difficult moments.
  • Don’t take verbal attacks personally.
  • Don’t assume this person will see things from your point of view.
  • Practice the conversation with a mentor before holding the real one.
  • Mentally practice the conversation. See various possibilities and visualize yourself handling them with ease. Envision the outcome you are hoping for.

Use one of these conversation openers.

  • I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.
  • I’d like to talk about ______ with you, and first I’d like to get your point of view.
  • I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
  • I need your help with something. Can we talk about it (soon)? If the person says, “Sure, let me get back to you,” follow up with him.
  • I think we have different perceptions about ____________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this.
  • I’d like to talk about ________. I think we may have different ideas about how to __________.
  • I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about ___________. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.

Kevin Grey recommends reading Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler. Kevin serves as Fractional HR Director for clients requiring senior level human resource leadership and organizational development expertise across Virginia. If you want to speak with him directly about any HR questions, do not hesitate to reach out to him; kgrey@warrenwhitney.com or 804.282.6566.