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Handling difficult conversations

Length: 1 hour as a team

Navigating difficult conversations well is one of the great leadership challenges. Try this mediation-influenced approach to having better difficult conversations with those around you at work. 

Step 1: Establish a safe conversation.

A safe conversation is “one in which both parties feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings without negative ramifications and without feeling threatened”.

To make a conversation safe:

  1. State that you want to work together to understand each other’s perspectives and to see how best to resolve the issues and move forward – not to apportion blame.

  2. Acknowledge that you consider their perspective to be legitimate, and that you hope they are able to understand your perspective too.

  3. Accept that the conversation may not be easy, but that you are looking to try and make things better for everyone.

Step 2: Listen and Explore

Remember that the other person won’t start to listen until they’ve felt heard.

Explore the other person’s perspective on what is going on. Get them talking about their perspective and enquire with genuine curiosity about how they see the situation. You are looking for insight into what their Interests and needs might be. This is not just ‘fact-finding’. The conversation will also build trust and cooperation if you are aware of predictable emotional concerns that people have in negotiations – the need to feel appreciated rather than demeaned, to be treated as a colleague rather than an adversary, to feel autonomous rather than controlled, and to be respected.

Don’t expect to agree. Compel yourself to listen without interruption or judgement, give people space and let them do the talking. The key test: you shouldn’t be doing most of the talking.

Step 3: Dig Deeper

If you are listening well, you will start to pick up on what’s important to the other person.

Use can use questions such as these to try and get to the heart of what is happening:

  • What impact is the situation having on us and others?

  • What do you think needs to happen for us to be able to move on?

  • What do you hope to get out of this discussion?

Once you have identified what you think is important, reflect it back to the other person to check you’re your understanding is right (e.g. it sounds to me from what you’ve said that [x] is particularly important to you. Have I heard you right?).

You can also invite the other person to adopt the ‘Mediator’s view’: If you were on the outside looking in here, what would you think about what’s going on? Can you both step outside of the conflict and look for solutions together?

Step 4: Find common solutions

You are ready to move to this step when you have got everything that is important to both parties out on to the table. If you haven’t, the parties won’t have felt heard, and they’ll go back to ‘their story’.

Check where you are by asking: ‘if I can summarise what I’ve heard, you’re [summarise, using their words if possible]. Is that what you think is at the heart of this? Have I missed anything?’

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