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6 Tactics for Managing Tough Conversations

“Winging it” is a recipe for failure. Instead, be mindful, prepare, and go into tough conversations with a plan.

We’ve all done it—either put off a difficult conversation or forged ahead with less than great results. But tough conversations and conflict are a normal part of life and can be ongoing. How we choose to manage through these times makes all the difference in achieving success.

Here are 6 ways to feel more prepared and confident.

1. First, go back to the basics. The principles of effective communication apply in all situations, especially difficult ones. If you are communicating effectively, you can better lead yourself and the other person through the conversation. Prepare by refreshing yourself on these 5 keys to effective communication.

2. Tune into your filters and current mindset. Take a moment to be self-aware. What is your current mindset? What are your filters about the other person and the situation (and are those likely to help or hamper your conversation)?

3. Own your actions and emotions. You are accountable for your words and actions. Control your emotions and filters to avoid escalating the conversation into a larger conflict. Keeping calm will also allow you to de-escalate if the situation is getting out of control.

  • Say how you feel, but don’t blame. When people are accused, they either shut down or retaliate. Be sure to use gentler but clear statements that express how you feel without blaming the other person. For example, say “Sometimes I feel ignored by you” instead of “You always ignore me!” Remember, as a leader, it is your responsibility to own your emotions and actions.
  • Avoid absolutes and focus on right now. Absolutes like “always” and “never” make the issue larger than life. Focusing on the current situation gives you a clear problem to solve. Consider the difference between “You never text me back!” and “You didn’t text me back earlier today.” 
  • It’s not only your words—body language counts! Eye contact shows you are open to hearing the other person’s side. But crossed arms, finger-pointing, and clenched fists say you’re closed off. Instead, lean forward, smile genuinely, nod your head, etc. 

4. Listen and make others feel understood. Actively listen to what the other person is saying and how they are feeling and show them empathy.

  • Pay attention. Allow “wait time” before responding. Don’t cut them off, finish their sentences, or start formulating your answer before they’ve finished. Be focused on the moment, and operate from a place of respect as the listener. 
  • Withhold judgment. Active listening requires an open mind. As a listener and a leader, be open to new ideas, new perspectives, and new possibilities. Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold criticisms, and avoid arguing or selling their point right away.
  • Step into the other person’s shoes, even if you disagree with them. Respect that people think and process information differently. They can have different filters than you do because filters are influenced by our experiences, values, beliefs, mindsets, etc.

5. Find common ground. Create space to move the conversation forward.

  • Reflect. When you’re the listener, don’t assume you understand them correctly—or that they know you heard them. Reflecting is an active listening technique indicating that you and your counterpart are on the same page. Mirror their information and emotions by periodically paraphrasing key points.
  • Share. Active listening is first about understanding the other person, then about being understood yourself. As you gain a clearer understanding of the other person’s perspective, you can begin to introduce your ideas, feelings, and suggestions.
  • Clarify. Ask questions about any issue that’s ambiguous or unclear. If you have doubt or confusion, open-ended, clarifying, and probing questions are important active listening tools that encourage problem-solving: “What do you think about…?” “Tell me about…?” “Will you further explain/describe…?”

6. Come to a mutual understanding. Agree on what to do next, restate key details, and outline the next steps together. Send a follow-up email and schedule check-ins if necessary.

  • Summarize. Briefly restating core themes during the conversation confirms and solidifies your grasp of the other person’s point of view. It also helps both parties be clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up. Summarize what you have understood and ask the other person to do the same.
  • Work together. If you get stuck, brainstorm solutions and collaborate with the other person. Try open-ended questions: “What can we do from here?”

Conflict is inevitable but manageable! Think of a conversation you’ve been avoiding (or one that went badly). How can you apply these tactics to help yourself and others?

Being able to manage tough conversations and conflict, in general, is one of the dozen critical skills for effective managers. Learn more about how we can help you master them all.

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