Having Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations Aren't About The Words

I don't know about you, but difficult conversations make me sweat. They stress me out. And yet over the years I've navigated enough of them to know three things:

  1. They're going to happen.
  2. They're never about the thing being discussed.
  3. You can actually get better at them.

The first truth is what it is. But the second is worth taking a second to explore.

That conversation when a customer doesn't agree with the bill and wants to argue? It's not about the money. It's never about the money. At some point, they felt unheard, unappreciated, unimportant and became unhappy. That's what it's about.

The cold shoulder or icy response? It may not be related to the last interaction at all. Instead, it might be related to new information discovered or a sense that the truth was hidden.

It's never, almost ever, about the thing you initially think it is, or what they say it's about.

But the good news is that you can get better at difficult conversations, so that they don't lock you up, make you freeze, or get you hiding from the world.

Pause on the Facts, Emotions are Key

A truth tied to my last point is that most challenging conversations aren't really about the facts. We like to think they are. And often we punt to the facts because we hope they'll justify our case.

But a challenging conversation has little or nothing to do with facts. Feelings aren't just part of it. They're the key dynamic.

Assuming positive intent, after all, is easy when there's no conflict. It becomes useful when there is actually a challenge. And that challenge requires that you not only assume positive intent, but look to connect emotionally.

Have you put yourself in their shoes? Have you asked what might really have hurt them? And how you can build respect and trust by digging into the squishier side of the equation.

Eliminate Blame and Embrace Narratives

In the agency world, when working with clients, you might get into a conversation about that last bill. Or the next milestone payment. And suddenly you're in a conversation about all the ways your staff haven't done what was expected of them.

Of course most of us have stories of all the ways clients have messed up. This isn't the time to get into the blame game.

Instead, focus on the part of their narrative that you can agree with. Getting more context always helps. Most situations are far more complex than the simple stories we tell ourselves. So dig in and get the additional context.

This will help you turn your simple 2D versions of their “side” into real-life 3D versions of what happened. My friend Steve, who runs Zeek, is really good about this. He'll step into a meeting with one agenda item – to understand the situation and parts of the story he hadn't understood before. He goes in with the working assumption that there's more for him to learn, and then he uses that to serve his customers better.

Remember, You Can Get Better at Difficult Conversations

One of the things I love about my friend Jennifer Bourn is that she's had tons of challenging conversations. She doesn't hide from them. Like Steve, she steps into every interaction with the goal to make things better, not to win.

We were talking about this the other day, in the context of agency owners and all the tough conversations they have to have (almost on a daily basis).

That's when I decided to interview her. And you can sign up (it's free) to hear me ask her all the tough questions around challenging conversations, and the scripts she's prepared so that you're not left flat-footed.

The webinar is this Thursday and it's called, “Why didn't I think of that?” and it's all the things you wish you would have known to say in tough moments as an agency owner.