All the essencial dos and don’ts of hard to have conversations – part one

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw

By Paul Hutcheson

This is the first of a three part series focusing on what it takes to handle difficult conversations with clarity and confidence.

Part One: Introduction to having hard-to-have conversations

Even in quite benign situations, conveying important messages effectively to other people can be a difficult challenge. Add to this mix an element of stress or conflict and the first casualties of the conversation will be communication skills. When these leave us, it’s like some electrical power failure – all semblance of productive communication flies out the window, only to be replaced by communication that’s decidedly unhelpful and aggravating.

While any list of “how to dos” (which will be discussed in later articles in this series) can seem daunting, the good news is that you only need to use well a couple of proven tips to achieve a tangible improvement in the conversation.

Balancing Persuasion, Conversation and Outcome

When we are ineffective in our communication, it’s invariably due to an excess use of a particular approach to the exclusion of something else. This typically means too much of either:

  • talk or silence
  • assertiveness or passivity
  • emotion or detachment
  • detail or generality etc.

A well structured, crucial conversation resembles a clover with three leaves, each of which represents one aspect of good communication – persuasion, an engaged interchange of viewpoints and an outcome.

Effective communicators demonstrate real comfort in using the particular skills and approaches under each of these three phases. When you are in a crucial interaction, whether it’s some negotiation, mediation etc, a rule of thumb is to spend approximately
40 percent of your time and energy on the persuasion or expression phase, 40 per cent on the exploration or conversation/interchange phase, and then moving on to the solution phase which accounts for the final 20 per cent.

Good persuasion is a really elusive skill. While some lawyers are excellent with this competency, in fifteen years of mediating I have seen far too many of them who overuse an argumentation style at the expense of more effective ways of delivering actual change in the hearts and minds of other people.

Central to achieving this type of movement is the ability to adapt our “persuasion speak” to the next phase of good advocacy, which requires real engagement in conversation. The focus of the remaining articles in this series is on the nuts and bolts of making difficult conversations work.

The crucial conversation is completed by moving from the discussion phase to the next stage of finding solutions. In so many meetings, we find ourselves locked into a process that appears rudderless, with no sense of direction or movement towards an outcome. (Poorly managed mediations are at risk of overdoing this discussion phase to the exclusion of a solution focus).

However, one highly significant problem flows through all stalled crucial conversations whether they be interpersonal, work, commercial or business-related. This is our inclination, when in a negotiation or conflict, to concentrate both too early and narrowly on solutions.

When we raise the problem and our solution in the same statement, an immediate response is triggered in the other person that’s inevitably unconsidered and negative. This reaction is understandable. The focus is immediately on what the person will see as a quite narrow issue of “taking or leaving” the suddenly presented solution. Before solutions are tabled its much more preferable to have something of an engaged conversation/exchange of viewpoints, which can broaden understanding and the number of possible options.

Effective advocacy is about trying to suspend that judgment over the outcome, long enough to allow for meaningful concentration on understanding the real issues and needs. Doing things in this order is far more likely to lead to some change of heart and mind which is what effective advocacy is all about.

Of course outcomes are what difficult conversations are all about but really competent communicators and negotiators know how to integrate in the other aspects of persuasion and conversation.

Look out for:

Part Two: Ten powerful ways to get your message across in crucial conversations