Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 29;   July 16, 2008: How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations

How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations

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Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.

Imagine winning a million in the lottery, and telling somebody about it. That would be fun, I suspect. Or imagine returning from a space voyage, having visited strange new worlds, and telling someone about that. No problem there either.

Aerial view of the Charley River at its confluence with the Yukon

Aerial view of the Charley River at its confluence with the Yukon. Meanders (bends of alternating curvature) create complexity in the flow of water in a river. One result is asymmetry in the channel profile, which causes erosive cutting at the outer bank of the meander, and deposition at the inner bank. Although these processes are relatively continuous, most of the changes in the river's course result from the periods of bankfull flow — those times when the river is full to its banks. In bankfull flow, the channel is at capacity, but not at flood. (See Jeffrey F. Mount, California Rivers and Streams, University of California Press, November 1995, chapter 4.)

Something similar happens in human relationships at work, and probably elsewhere. Change is more or less continuous, but probably the bulk of the dramatic changes in relationships happen at those times when "we need to talk." Catastrophic change — corresponding to flood — is rather more rare for most workplace relationships. Photo by Mark Dornblaser, courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Now imagine having a heart-to-heart conversation with someone at work with whom you have a troubled relationship. Imagine telling him or her about what you find troubling. Now that's a bit trickier.

For most of us, even imagining that scene is painful.

As you imagined it, what did you notice in yourself? Did you feel warm? Did you feel your muscles tighten? Did your heart rate increase? Did you feel hungry, or nauseous, or did you want to get up and walk around, or maybe talk with a friend?

If you noticed any of these things, or anything similar, you can relax. Take a breath. That conversation didn't really happen. You're fine.

Even though you were only imagining the conversation, look at what happened! In a real conversation you might be even more aware of your reactions.

Reactions to these situations can complicate the task of getting through them. Here are some of the advantages of knowing your reactions and knowing how to manage them.

  • We can think about some difficult options, and make clearer assessments of those options.
  • We can choose to consider some options even though they're unpleasant.
  • We can generate insights and ideas that are more likely to surface while we're considering uncomfortable options.
  • We can rehearse tactics for difficult interactions.
  • We're more likely to enter these situations prepared, because preparation itself becomes easier.

Reactions to difficult
conversations can complicate
the task of getting
through them
Knowing how we react to difficult conversations, and knowing how to manage our reactions, can thus be very helpful. Here are some tips for contemplating difficult conversations.

  • Choose a safe and comfortable place.
  • Breathe.
  • Notice your breathing from time to time and keep it clear and steady.
  • Imagine the conversation in detail. Where it is, what's in the room, what the lighting is like, what your partner looks like, how your voices sound.
  • Tell yourself that you can stop any time you want.
  • Actually stop, just to practice stopping, or if your imagining gets too difficult.
  • Imagine the situation more than once. Notice similarities and differences between different imaginings.
  • When you re-imagine the conversation, recall past imaginings. Keep what fits, and discard what doesn't.
  • To make it a little more realistic, when you're ready, invite a buddy to sit with you or nearby or on call by phone while you practice.

When you finally have the difficult conversation, remember that the problems between you are probably not yours alone. Other people are almost always involved in any difficulty between two. Maybe the two of you can work that part out together. That collaboration can help bring you closer. Go to top Top  Next issue: Obstructionist Tactics: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
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A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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