Preparing for a difficult conversation: photo of mise en scene - items set out read to cook. v

#96 Preparing For A Difficult Conversation

Preparing for a difficult conversation is of paramount importance. In general, the more you prepare the better off you will be.

Preparing for a difficult conversation: photo of mise en scene - items set out read to cook. v

As preparation, you may be thinking you need to bolster your argument to prevail against the other person. Or, maybe you feel you need to satisfy your sense of rightness and do this through conversation with confidants who see it your way. These methods of preparation are not helpful. 

Speaking with a confidant can be valuable preparation, but in doing so you should seek someone who challenges your perspective as well as supports you as a person. This combination is perfect. It can assist you to build psychological security from knowing there’s someone you can count on. It’s also helpful to have the merits of your viewpoints and interests challenged so they are strengthened, clarified, modified, or dropped.

Your confidant can also help you in systematically preparing for a difficult conversation using the following three steps, or you can follow these steps on your own. 

Find your motivation

Take some time to engage in a risk benefit analysis. List on one side of a piece of paper the potential benefits of the conversation. List on the other side potential downsides. You will often uncover positive possibilities that you are not thinking about because of concerns or anxieties around having the conversation. Don’t rush this, you’ll get more out of the exercise if you spend 15 minutes or more with it. 

It is useful to remind ourselves that differences are easier to deal with when we pay attention to them early on. They are more manageable and less stressful to work through when the conversation is still at a mild discomfort stage. I am promoting a perspective that says we usually benefit from interacting with others over our differences. And the earlier the better.

Build your power

Most people think of power only as authority or a person’s position, like a boss or a President.  But there are many other sources of power that one can make use of in preparing for a difficult conversation. Examples of other sources of power include: doing research to increase your knowledge, connecting with others who can support or inform you, and building your communication skills.

You can also deepen your understanding of why the situation matters to you and what aspects are most important and thereby bolster your determination. You can do this by spending some time with the following questions:

  • What values are important for you to stand on?
  • What does the other person say about you, and what part of what they say has some truth you should pay attention to?
  • What makes it challenging to hear what she or he says?
  • What are your priorities? (You should make note of these in writing and not forget.)
  • Why do you think this challenge has come into your life at this time and what is a potential personal benefit to you from facing the challenge?
  • What does the situation or other person have to teach you and what are you learning so far?

Set up the conversation well

As you move towards initiating a difficult conversation here are some helpful reminders for arranging it:

  • Approach the other person in private
  • Ask when it’s convenient for them 
  • Negotiate a neutral location 
  • Explicitly state the purpose for requesting the meeting.

 Plan how you will manage your emotional reactions, for example, by taking a couple of deep breaths. You need to be able to pause and then say something constructive, rather than allowing a visceral reaction to dictate your response. 

A question frequently asked is, “What if I can’t prepare because the other person approaches me?” Try to buy yourself some time. You can suggest that you want some time to think about the topic area and talk tomorrow or later in the day. Even taking a trip to the washroom to gather your wits is worthwhile. Best not to jump in without some preparatory reflection time, even if it’s very brief. Ask yourself a couple of the questions above to help ground yourself. 

How much time should you spend in preparing for a difficult conversation? It depends on how important the issue and relationship are. Greater time is preferable when they are more crucial. In general, spending an hour twice in the few days before the conversation would be wise. Some upcoming conversations warrant fifteen minutes of preparation, others several hours or longer. 

Being able to engage well in a difficult conversation is the core communication capability needed for conflict competence. All the other dimensions of leadership in conflict require conversation. Every time you interact, you have an effect and you want every interaction to build your collaborative capacity with others. 


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