Six Steps to Mastering Tough Conversations

“Confrontation is simply meeting the truth head-on.” —Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University

Whether it’s with an employee, a colleague, a spouse or one of your children, tough conversations are something all of us have to have but none of us like to have. But true leaders know how vital it is to tell the people they care about the things they need to hear—not what they want to hear.

When faced with the necessity of having tough conversations, I always remember that empathy and compassion are my two most valuable tools, and I remind myself that it is me and them, not me versus them.

Here is a six-step process for mastering tough conversations:

Step 1: Create a safe environment

Building trust is an ongoing process. Real relationships take time, but time never makes tough conversations easier—confront any issues early.

Step 2: Confront issues and behavior, not people

Trust that they can handle it, but don’t assume you know what their response will be. Never initiate a tough conversation when you are angry, frustrated or disappointed—this will never lead to a productive conversation.

Step 3: Do it in person

Never have a tough conversation over the phone, email or text. Be honest and direct, with respect and tact, and reduce innate barriers and defensiveness by approaching the conversation with phrases like, “Can I bounce something off of you?” or “We need to discuss something important because I care about you” and “This feedback is to help you.”

Step 4: Acknowledge feelings

Feelings are always valid, actions are not (understandable vs. acceptable). Emotion will always beat logic (disagree without being disagreeable). Never assign blame (I’m feeling vs. you make me feel).

Step 5: Be an active listener

Ask for their perspective and then listen to their answer. Do not interrupt—allow them to have a full response to your question. If you need to, get clarity on the situation. (“Can you please clarify what you mean by that?”). Affirm/validate their feelings and intentions without judgment.

Step 6: Ruminate, respond and resolve

Thank and acknowledge them for having a tough conversation. Do not respond right away—take adequate time to process and let emotions settle (“Let me take time to process that”), then formally follow up to resolve and move forward.

Conducting tough conversations is a skill. And like any skill, it will improve with purposeful practice. So do your best not to avoid them. Lean in and face them head-on and they will become easier over time.

Photo credit: Joshua Ness, Unsplash