Introduction - What is a Difficult Conversation?

Jack, an account manager, received notice from the financial department that one of his clients was late in paying what he owed. Jack, having developed a friendship with the client over the years, knows that this client is going through a rough patch. Sue needs to tell Donna that the project she's been working on for months has been frozen due to the financial situation. Jen has to tell Kim - a training manager at one of the company's sites - that her training budget has been frozen. CEO Bill wants to gather the employees and let them know that the company's future looks bleak for the coming year. The common denominator of all of these conversations - hence the term "difficult conversations" - is the difficulty we feel before, during, and often after we've had them.

How do we define a "Difficult Conversation"? It's simple. Any conversation which is difficult for us to have is a difficult conversation, no matter what type of difficulty we are experiencing, who the conversation is with, or what it's about. Since the difficulty is the same regardless of the context, if we know how to deal with it, we can handle any tough conversation. We'll have a model, a type of "master plan" for handling difficult conversations.

The basic idea behind the "master plan" approach is that the fundamentals of handling a difficult conversation are the fundamentals of handling the difficulty, and therefore the "external" elements, such as the topic, identity of the other party and all other elements that change from conversation to conversation, are secondary, and will mainly affect the content of the conversation, with little or no affect on how the conversation is handled.

This is an empowering message for those initiating a difficult conversation: "Acquire the skills to manage the difficulty and you can talk to anyone about anything!" This message is increasingly important when the number of difficult conversations is about to rise/is rising do to the situation.

The difficulty in having the conversation is due to the element of confrontation - the possibility of disagreement between the parties involved. The recipient of the message - the person we have to have the difficult conversation with - arrives believing he has conducted himself properly (and I disagree), thinking certain things are going to happen (and I tell him they won't) and so on. A difficult conversation is one which changes the course of the other party's thoughts or actions. Things will change for him or her after the conversation, and the uncertainty and potential for conflict and emotional flare-ups which may accompany these changes are what make the conversation difficult.

When times are good, these conversations may appear to be urgent, but in times of crisis there is really no choice. When the refrigerator is full we eat what tastes good (we do what is easy to do), and when the refrigerator is empty we eat whatever we have (we do what we have to do). While this may not sound encouraging, that's the reality of it. We can invent excuses and keep pushing it off, but at some point we will have to have the difficult conversation. Or as the saying goes: "You can walk to your dentist, or you can crawl to him". Therefore, we can view the current situation as positive - it forces us to stop making excuses and shortens our squirming time - there's simply no choice.

The purpose of this article is to offer people in any type of role or position, including not only managers and employees but also parents, partners and siblings - we all play various "roles" in life - ways of taking the initiative and managing difficult conversations.

The Difficult Conversation as a Double Conflict

A difficult conversation is actually a conflict. There is the aspect of disagreement - a clash between two courses as we mentioned earlier, there is the necessity of having the conversation (the other side will not just disappear, we're "stuck" with each other and so, as we said, it's inevitable), and there is the emotional component. If we examine the difficult conversation closely, we will see that it is made up of two conflicts:
• The inner conflict - which the initiator experiences before actually having the conversation (the conversation runs in our head long before we actually start talking to the other person). The inner conflict - the dilemma - lies in the difficulty of having the conversation versus the obligation to. Something inside is stopping us, but on the other hand we know we owe it to our role and/or to ourselves to act.
• The external conflict - which takes place during the actual conversation. Both sides come to the conversation with different points of view which could develop into conflict in words and then action.

The reasons for the first type of conflict are many, and can be understood with the help of various coaches and therapists. One reason, relevant to this article, is a lack of skill at handling the other type of conflict - the actual conversation - which brings on feelings of insecurity, which in turn increases the sense of difficulty.

As human beings, we all know how it feels to be deterred by the unknown. But being deterred by something I'm not good at does not improve my ability to deal with it, which makes me even less inclined to deal with it, in an endless cycle. The simple (although not always easy) way out of this cycle is to acquire skills, which I will elaborate on when discussing ways of dealing with the other type of conflict.

Difficult Conversations Within the Context of an Organization

In the course of working with people in various roles in organizations on matters of conflict management and initiating difficult conversations, I learned that "hatting" managers is one of the most effective ways of getting them to carry out a task. "Hatting" - from the word hat - is the process of getting a person in touch with one of his sources of power - his commitment to himself. If my job (the "hat" I wear) as manager includes conducting difficult conversations, by not having the conversation I am betraying my commitment to my role. This applies to the "hat" I wear as parent, partner, etc. as well. The human resources department plays an important part in "hatting" people in various positions, and even more so in times of crisis, which I will expand upon later on.

Author's Bio: 

With academic background in Economics, Accountancy, Law and Philosophy Asaf Shani is a highly experienced facilitator - consultant - trainer on confrontational situations. A Confrontational situation is a situation in which two entities (groups or individuals), holding opposing viewpoints, meet. Every conflict, negotiation, sales encounter, a difficult conversation etc, falls into this category.

Asaf started his way in the M&A division of Delloite & Touche, then in the beginning of 2001 he established Shani Mediation Inc. which specializes in consulting and training corporations and individuals.

He developed unique models like the I Win model and Unravel the conflict methodology that were successfully implemented in giant firms like IBM, Microsoft, Intel, HP, Coca-Cola, Nokia, Orange, along with government agencies, hospitals and many SMB organizations.

His hobbies include Kung-Fu, horse riding, swimming and jogging.