Welcome to the art of positive confrontation. If there is an art to learn, it is the art of having difficult conversations and positively confronting others.” – James Hayes.

One conversation can change everything.

It is one of your busiest days at work. Customers are calling; clients are flowing in and out of the office. The employees are running to catch up on all their duties for the week, just before the weekend. Suddenly, you notice some friction between two team members: Mary, a junior team member, and Julie, a senior project manager.

At first, wait to see if they can work it out independently. However, later, Mary approaches you in private. She’s upset about a specific issue with Julie and her attitude. She has refused to accept a project handover from Mary because she hasn’t completed some documentation correctly. Mary also feels that Julie’s approach is becoming a bit aggressive. She needs you to jump in ASAP and resolve the conflict.

We have all faced similar scenarios during our careers and often felt we lacked the resources, time, and patience to resolve them. As a result, we feel confused, perhaps irritated, doubtful, and unclear about the best possible resolution, which makes us feel trapped and prevents us from taking action.

During my career, I have led some tough conversations in harsh environments. We often do not have the necessary discussions because we fear they won’t work. But when this happens, frustration sets in, trust wanes, and there is no collaboration. Many of us work in teams that perform crucial operations, and we can’t risk not having these conversations.

According to Harvard Business Review, 67 per cent of managers fear having difficult conversations, setting them up for failure.

The ability to have these conversations and lead and remain balanced and positive prepares you for success in your organization and creates a positive and productive work environment.

By leading these conversations, we shall find the courage to confront people constructively and empathetically, without being mean, rough, or hurtful, and get the best outcomes.

The key to keeping up and winning the game is mastering emotions by dissociating ourselves and focusing on the goals and objectives of the talk. Self-development and growth are impossible without leading tough conversations for happiness and fulfilment. These situations will also position us as honest people with integrity, serving us well when faced with future challenges.

Here are four simple tools to help us deal with challenging conversations

According to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), three essential processes occur in the human mind when dealing with a dilemma: deletion, distortion, and generalization.

We all have a story or movie that plays in our minds and makes our reactions to certain situations very different from how our colleagues would.

When we have a conflict, we may think that there is no possible positive outcome, and this is an example of deletion or not accepting any alternative to our fixed mindset in the discussion.

Distortion occurs when we twist the idea of the outcome, believing, for example, that our manager has a negative opinion of us and will always have a bad performance review.

Generalizations happen when we say, “All the managers are behaving the same” or “All the good jobs are unavailable.”

Using the power of NLP and the knowledge on deletion, distortion, and generalization, we can help people in our organizations analyze and restructure the stories they play in their heads and win at difficult conversations.

How it works

  1. Come out of our own story and keep a clear head.

When we have a difficult conversation, it helps to start by acknowledging our responsibility for having the dialogue. Beginning the discussion helps us be grounded and present; we can engage the other party and quickly get to the matter. We can’t control how others will react, but we can maintain the way we do and present the facts that follow the discussion by showing that we care.

Start a dialogue with the desired outcome and goal in mind, whether to improve relationships within the team, increase sales, boost productivity, et cetera.

Be specific and honest by clarifying why we’re having the conversation.

When we start our discussion, “When I hear you/see you saying/doing … I feel/think that…,” it does not cast judgment and blame but opens a safe space for expression and discussion.

  1. Understand their story

When starting a difficult conversation, knowing that we don’t know anything is essential.

Remember that people always make the best choice available to them at a particular time. If the best decision is to shout at a specific moment, we choose to call. We must mostly listen and remain quiet. Remember, we don’t know anything.

Psychologists talk about four houses from which emotions come: the House of Mad, the House of Glad, the House of Sad, and the House of Scared. Once you understand where they are coming from, get even more curious. Approach the conversation with curiosity rather than judgment. Try to understand what explicit or implicit expectations are present. Listen to the intentions beneath the emotions and words expressed.

Beware of misperceptions wildly when difficult conversations spin out of control. It is often a word or expression that a person hears that makes them annoyed, embarrassed, or shameful. They think the other person has a better view of themself or wants to intimidate them. The other person might come across as strong because they lack self-confidence and are afraid to fail or fail because of other factors or people. But, assuming it might be a misperception.

Understanding the story helps us stay curious and make more informed agreements later.

  1. Validate people’s opinions and their needs.

In NLP, we often exercise tuning into the person’s bandwidth with whom we converse.

Ask the question: How can we increase the person’s bandwidth so this helps him or her learn new choices concerning reaction? Think analytically instead of reacting to make the difficult situation more productive. Let them talk about their needs and what they go through — feeling the need for recognition, respect, punctuality, et cetera.

Always state what is observed by remaining objective. Keep your tone of voice neutral and state the facts. It is essential to avoid judgments, bias, and third-party expressions; otherwise, we risk making accusations that could prove us wrong.

Use your “velvet hammer” by saying: “I noticed … I am wondering … Wow, that must be tough .”

In our case with Mary and Julie, we might say to Julie: “I understand that you refused to accept the project handover from Mary, and you told her that her work was not good enough. Is that correct?”

Then, allow Julie to share her arguments. Be sure to hear her out, but don’t let the conversation go off-topic. We can always remind her of the main objective of the discussion.

Try to understand the other person’s position. Her viewpoint might seem unrealistic, but it makes perfect sense to her. Ask Julie how she arrived at that conclusion and what she thinks will happen if her proposal isn’t accepted. Asking helps us gain the helicopter view, but can also invite the other person to re-think her idea.

  1. Restate the outcome

Statements like: “My goal is/the objective of this call is to … help us stay on track and keep steering the conversation toward the outcome you desire.

By acknowledging the needs of the people — the quality of work, punctuality, respect, et cetera, and making them understand our needs or the needs of others involved in the situation, we allow Julie to feel empowered and help her understand the adverse effects of her actions. We could say: “Maria was so upset, and the project handover was a day later, which caused further complications for people in other teams.”

Invite Julie to contribute to the situation and suggest some ways from your side. Please focus on the practical steps she must take to ensure successful change.

We could then explain the resolution we have in mind to Julie by saying, “I’d like you to work with Maria and tell her exactly what you expect for a successful handover. You have suggested a written handover checklist, so maybe you could work together to develop that.”

Before these tough meetings, sit up straight, think of something positive, and take a deep breath. Keep the conversation focused objectively, and share positive ideas and improvement opportunities. You may want to say, “I am here to tell you something that might be a tough/difficult/a challenge. We’ll get through it, and this, too, shall pass.

Remember to use questions to support the purpose. Asking the right questions helps the other person process what’s happened, and it allows us to clarify and debunk false stories in people’s minds.

Take accountability and validate. Only when we realize that we alone are responsible for our emotions and reactions will we come to the agreement table with the complex understanding that we need to find a solution that works for both sides.

Be mindful that avoiding difficult conversations can lead to dysfunction and lack of performance, which can ultimately lead to a negative impact on both the team and the business.

Final Words

Be the leader who tackles the tough conversation by remaining open, vulnerable, and ready for feedback. This approach will enable the space to share real issues and allow deep-rooted reasons to come through so you embrace and work them from a more authentic and genuine perspective that induces positive human-to-human interaction and leads to mutual success.

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