How to make tough talks easy

How to make tough talks easy

Whenever I speak to groups about how to deliver bad news or navigate tough conversations, there are two communication techniques I share.


The first is how to craft smart, influential messages when you’re caught off guard. You know, when out-of the blue someone attacks your character or asks a gotcha question. What do you say in that first 15 seconds of surprise? The answer: Have a set of standard phrases in your hip pocket that you can use to buy time and disarm your attacker. Consider statements such as “Not exactly; let me explain.”


The second is how to create effective messages when you can foresee an issue. In other words, how to get past those first 15 seconds of surprise to regain your composure and effectively answer a question or address a problem. The solution: Get your communication house in order by customizing messages to address the most common conflicts you might face.


Here are a few of those common conflicts and the communications techniques that can help you communicate better under pressure:


  • Know when to change the conversation. It’s healthy to get things off your chest—but not to complain or gripe. All that does is foster negativity. So, how do you hear someone out without letting them rant? Simple. The minute they start repeating their main beef you need to bridge them over to something more positive: “I appreciate you walking me through this, but what we need to focus on now is . . . .”
  • Shut down long-winded talkers. You know the type: people who simply don’t know when to stop talking. Always give them a short, specific window of time, as opposed to using generic phrases like I have “a few minutes” or “a little bit of time.” This forces them (albeit unconsciously) to stick to the point because they know the clock’s ticking. If you get stuck with a windbag, interject with “Thanks for bringing this up. Because I have six minutes before my next meeting, let’s focus on how I can help you.”
  • Focus on the positive. Employees who are dissatisfied with their pay and benefits can easily drag their supervisors down into the rabbit hole of he-said / she-said: They bring up how much other employees make or how much other companies pay. Instead of trying to answer every single complaint employees raise . . . change the conversation. Say instead, “There’s something that keeps you here on the team. Let’s talk about that.”


All of the communication techniques mentioned above are built on the same foundation: Always spill the truth, be considerate, take both sides into account and cast others in as favorable a light as possible.


Before you act . . .

Don’t let yourself fall into the habit of avoiding dicey conversations . . . even if it means getting way outside your comfort zone. With practice—and positive self-talk—you’ll see that you can manage these situations as well as most people. Maybe better.

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