Two corporate professionals are pictured. They have exaggerated body language, suggesting that they are having difficult conversations. This image aims to visualise the topic of the blog which describes why difficult conversations might go wrong and how to overcome this with effective communication.
Communication Emotional Intelligence Leadership

A Simple Approach to Having Difficult Conversations

Learn seven common mistakes that people make during difficult conversations and how to combat these with effective communication strategies.

Usually, difficult conversations can be resolved quickly if they are addressed when the problem / problems arise.  However, often people avoid them.  They convince themselves that talking about the problem will make it worse rather than resolving it.

Below are seven common mistakes that people make during difficult conversations and tips throughout for how to employ effective communication strategies to avoid these errors.

Mistake #1: We fall into defensive mode:

When difficult conversations get ugly, it’s often because we’ve made a fundamental mistake: we’ve fallen into a defensive mode which creates a winner and a loser.  When we let the conversation take this direction – especially at work – everyone looks bad, and everyone loses.  The real loser is not your conversational counterpart, but the defensive mode itself.

Mistake #2: We try to oversimplify the problem.

If the topic of your tough conversation were simple, chances are you wouldn’t be arguing about it. Because it is intimidating to try and tackle several issues at once, we may try to condense them into a less-complex problem.  To avoid simplifying, remind yourself that if the issue wasn’t complicated, it probably wouldn’t be so hard to talk about.

Mistake #3: We don’t bring enough respect to the conversation.

The key to oversimplifying is respecting the problem you’re trying to resolve.  To avoid the defence mode mindset, you need to stretch yourself – you need to respect the person you’re talking to, and you need to respect yourself.  Ensure you respond in a way that you can be proud of. This will assist you from getting off track, especially if the person you’re conversing with chooses an aggressive path.

Mistake #4: We lash out – or shut down.

Fear, anger, embarrassment and defensiveness are just some of the emotions that may run through us during a tough conversation.  Some of us react by confronting the situation more aggressively, others rush to smooth things over. Some of us may move between both.  As an alternative, try to move to the middle and state what you really want to achieve.  The emotions we feel won’t suddenly disappear.  But with practice, you will learn to focus on the outcome you want regardless of the others behaviour.

Mistake #5: We react to thwarting ploys.

It could be stonewalling, sarcasm or accusing. The best approach is to simply address the topic openly and genuinely.  If, however, the topic from the other party is stubborn coldness, you could question, “I don’t know how to decipher your silence.” Disarm the topic by labelling the observed behaviour.

Mistake #6: We make assumptions about our counterpart’s intentions.

Optimists tend to assume that every disagreement is just a misunderstanding between two good-hearted people.  Remember that you and the other party are both dealing with uncertainty.  If you get stuck, pose the question, “I’m realising as we talk that I don’t fully understand how you see this problem.” Admitting what you don’t know can be a powerful way to get a conversation back on track.

Mistake #7: We lose sight of the goal.

The key in any difficult conversation is to always keep sight of what you are trying to achieve.  Help prevent this by going into conversations with a clear, realistic preferred outcome; the knowledge of how you want your working relationship with your colleague to be; and having done some careful thinking about any obstacles that could interfere with either.

Now that you have considered the 7 most common mistakes, try to apply effective communication strategies with these mistakes in the front of your mind next time you are faced with a difficult conversation. To assist you further, we have also included a free tool (The AID Feedback Model) that will assist you in your approach to a difficult conversation in your workplace or personal life. Download it here.

You can also check out our Difficult Conversations Course.