By Sharon Young, director of Pearlcatchers and exhibitor at the World of Learning

Every so often we are faced with a difficult conversation where it is essential to ‘get it right’. This might be dealing with an under-performing member of staff, telling a colleague that you can’t deliver on time or calling back an angry customer. In everyday life it can damage relationships. In business it can mean the end of a contract or customer loyalty. Although most of us recognise the value of tackling potential conflict, we often shy away from this for a variety of reasons: we are concerned about how the other person might react or we are unsure of how to say what needs to be said.

How to handle difficult conversations is a common challenge within a business and can crop up when dealing with major change, performance management, customer service and conflict.

Here are some top tips to tackling those difficult conversations promptly and confidently.

Ready Set GO

Preparation: identify the conversations you need to have (and why) and what factors may hinder you in tackling the issue successfully. Your attitude affects your behaviour, which in turn affects the other persons’ attitude and behaviour.

The Future’s Bright — the Future’s POSEE!

We often spend so long thinking about what the problem is that we forget about clarifying what we’d like the outcomes to be.

So you now need to set a well formed outcome that is:

• Positive — what you want• Own-Part — that you can influence• Specific — backed up by …• Evidence — you can clearly define how you will know when you have achieved your goal• Ecology — you have checked what the impact of achieving the goal will be on other aspects of your life

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that the outcome is positive — because what you focus on is what you get. Our unconscious mind filters out the words ‘not’, ‘don’t’ etc. So if you say ‘I don’t want Sarah to dump all her boring jobs on me’, your mind filters out the ‘don’t’ and guess what you get! Far better to have an outcome such as ‘I want to be able to say no to Sarah / create a fair way to distribute work.’

I’ll Tell You What I Want

This is where you need to outline your positive outcome, describe the problem specifically, state why it is a problem and ask for their input. Firstly you need to state positively that you believe the problem can be worked out and then set out the future outcome you hope for as a result of the confrontation, e.g. “I’d like us to have a better relationship and feel more comfortable working together.” Ask for the other party’s help in achieving this

Knowing Me, Knowing You

It is all very well stating your point clearly, but there are two sides to every story. It should therefore be a two-way conversation, asking questions to understand what is important for the other person. Ensure at this stage that you stay focused on them and don’t instantly disagree or add your own views. Even if you don’t agree with their point of view, you need to acknowledge their views. Ideally find common interests / objectives that you can build on.

Ask open questions to find out what is important to the other person and be prepared to share what is important to you.

It’s Nothing Personal

One of the main reasons challenging conversations get out of hand is because personal feelings get in the way.

As soon as you start apportioning blame or getting caught up in your thoughts about / feelings towards the other person, then you will quickly lose sight of the goal. Focus on the problem not the person.

The common mistake to make during a difficult conversation is that there has to be a winner and a loser. This leads to conversations that are unproductive and damaging, making all parties look bad - in the end, everyone loses.

I’m OK / You’re OK

Even if you both enter the conversation feeling calm and objective, it is important to ensure this is maintained. It is also important to observe changes in the other person that might alert you to a change in their state. If they seem to be frustrated, worried or upset about something, acknowledge this.

To be truly successful a difficult conversation needs to end with both parties being OK. A great way to do this is to invent options for mutual gain — look to first broaden the options on the table rather than look for a single answer — then see how well each option meets your shared interests. Offer positive solutions and invent ways of making their decision easy such as making your proposals consistent with their values. Remember, this is about both sides emerging satisfied: you are not trying to ‘beat’ them.

This is Not the End

Once you have got the ‘difficult bit’ out of the way and reached some sort of agreement, many people make as quick an exit as possible. However, spending a little time ensuring that you both have the same understanding, confirming any actions and agreeing how you will measure success, can stop the situation slipping back into difficulty again.

However difficult the conversation has been, end on a positive note. Along the lines of — “I am really glad we have had this conversation and I feel like I understand your position a lot better now.”

However, walking out the door is not the end of it. Ensure that you deliver on any commitments you made and take some time to reflect on what you can learn from the situation.