You can’t put it off any longer. It’s keeping you awake at night. It’s that conversation that you know you need to have with someone – the one you keep putting off. Addressing a colleague’s performance problem or sharing bad news with your boss can seem as nerve-wracking as skating on thin ice.

It can be tempting to avoid having hard conversations, because we don’t want to upset the other person. Think long-term good versus short-term comfort. Have the talk, if it’s in the other person’s best interest.

There are ways to make tough conversations easier.

Prepare. Take time to think. Ask yourself:

  • What do I want to achieve with this conversation?
  • What’s at stake? (What will the consequences be if nothing changes?)
  • What assumptions am I making about this person and/or their behavior?
  • What are my feelings? How can I handle my emotions?
  • How have I contributed to the problem?
  • What do I have in common with this person?
  • What are the key messages I want to communicate?
  • How can I make sure to listen as much as I talk?

Practice. Not just in your head, and not just once.

  • Role play the conversation with someone many times. Try to simulate the emotional intensity that you anticipate in the actual exchange.
  • Choose a role play partner who will be brutally honest, and one who can help you strategize how best to overcome roadblocks.
  • Videotape your practice conversations. You’ll understand what you’re conveying not only in words, but in your body language, tone of voice and pace of the dialogue.

Execute. Some key points to remember:

  • Ask questions with an open mind (really open, not the “I already know the answer, but I’ll ask you anyway” attitude).
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Maintain emotional composure. Use the techniques you gained through practice – monitor your breathing rate and repeat a phrase in your mind (e.g., “I will see him as a person” or “I am focused on our mutual goals”).
  • Make sure you both understand each other, even if you don’t agree. Frequently summarize in your own words what you hear from the other person. Ask her to do the same.
  • Work toward a shared understanding of success. If this issue is resolved, what thinking and behaviors will be present? What thinking and behaviors will be eliminated?
  • Confirm the actions steps that will take place after the meeting and how you will follow up later on.

Few people look  forward to difficult conversations. (If they do, that may be cause for concern!) You CAN manage yourself in such a way that thorny situations become much more manageable and productive. It will be smooth skating when you prepare, practice and execute.

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