Suppose for a minute everyone you meet reacts favourably to you and your proposals.
What would this imply for your self-confidence, your communication, your interactions and your manner of approaching others?
Precisely the certainty of this favourable acceptance by other people is what the application of people skills can bring about. The sole precondition is that you apply your people skills with the awareness of what people need.
What do people need?
Successful application of people skills rests on realising that people essentially need a form of safety. They need the certainty that they can trust you not to hurt their interests.
By taking this into account you are able to give what the people you meet need in order for them to react favourably to you and your proposals.
People need to know you’re WITH them
People skills work because of the practical reality that people prefer a smooth encounter above an unclear confrontation-like meeting. They allow you to assure other people that you are working WITH them towards a common goal.
It doesn’t matter where people come from, in all social classes, all levels of education, across all genders – the vast majority of people choose to be on the defensive when faced with the possibility of a confrontation-like meeting.
You are able break through the defences that people unconsciously use and have a productive encounter by being open and taking into account what the other person needs. That is what the right application of people skills allows you to do.
People need to feel comfortable with you
Openness and taking the other person’s needs into account allow for a social space in which you can both feel comfortable. The vast majority of people requires this kind of safe space. Here lies an opportunity to learn to relate to the vast majority of people. Chances are you belong to this vast majority as well, so you can start with what you would like to experience yourself.
Abstractly formulated, people skills are those behaviours that show a natural sympathy for someone you meet. The effect of this sympathy shows itself in the behaviour the other person is exhibiting towards you. When done right, people skills applied lead to an affinity between you and the other person.
Affinity means a willingness to come closer (figuratively speaking). It makes it possible to examine what is mutual, can be shared and explored together. These are the essential requirements for the seeds of a relationship. When your communication in a broad sense proves you are sincere, more transparency and straightforwardness will follow.
People skills elicit the best from people
Essentially people skills are about eliciting the best from people, that is: the other person(s) and you. By approaching someone and showing you are not offensive there will be no reason or real occasion for the other person to be on the defensive. In these circumstances people are able and willing to bring out the best of themselves and explore the situation for its potential.
Perhaps it reflects an optimistic view of man that people are willing to bring out the best of themselves when you show them they can trust you. But why not give it a try? It is without risk, no loss and only potential gain.
How do you know what other people need?
People really do respond very well to professional decency and an openness they are offered to share. Of course this requires a professional attitude and a little bit of experience. But essentially it is as simple as the application of what you unconsciously already do when you are with people you know and trust.
By exploring your own needs you will get an idea about what you need in preparation for interaction with others. But this is just the beginning. Soon you’ll become adept at meeting other people’s needs even when they exhibit themselves in another form than your own. That is what you need to be successful in applying people skills: to respond to what people need from you to make a relationship possible.
The result will be an open social space where you both feel comfortable and where you are able to put forward your goals and what you need from each other.
In order to get the results you want from a difficult conversation, you have to end the conversation in the best way. It’s the end that determines what happens next. A bad end leads to a bad result. A good end gives you the result you want. What is the end that leads to the results you want, and how do you accomplish this?
Research by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman shows that how an experience ends determines how it is remembered. When the memory is bitter, this inhibits taking the right actions afterwards. The negative emotions form a drain on active energy. Instead of to action, it usually leads to reaction. Conversely, when the memory is good, the chance of constructive action being taken is also good.
As the initiator and facilitator of a difficult conversation you can use this phenomenon as a positive leverage in reaching the results you want. You take care the experience of the difficult conversation ends well. The conversation will then lead to constructive action and results.
Connecting the dots
In the case of difficult conversations you should see the end you are working towards as a dotted line that you have to make into a continuous line. When you, as the initiator of the difficult conversation, connect the dots all by yourself, you will have ended the meeting poorly. Having a difficult conversation is a task you complete jointly. The challenge here is that the occasion, the content, and the structuring of the conversation is often one-sided.
The dotted boundary line consists of dots, or requirements, from both persons involved in the conversation. Fulfilling all the requirements should connect the dots. When you have connected all the dots, you have a good ending. The conversation will probably lead to the desired results.
The main requirements you should take into account are these:
The result the occasion demands.
The action resulting from the conversation.
The emotional and other needs of both participants.
Ethics and values involved.
Current and future relationship.
A difficult conversation that leads to positive results
Almost all of us have the experience of poorly managed difficult conversations. You were left with a bad feeling.
You could design and conduct a fundamentally different one. The message that you have to deliver remains the same. The experience about the message itself is what it is, and will result in the same emotions.
But here comes what makes all the difference: you can take care that despite the difficult content of the conversation, the conversation leads to a positive end.
You achieve this by being aware of the difference between what Kahneman calls the experiencing self (1) and the remembering self (2).
The experiencing self (1) is in the now. Compare it to what you say when the doctor asks you: how does it feel when I push here? The remembering self (2) knows about the story as you have experienced it. Compare it to what you say when the doctor asks you: how have you been feeling?
Kahneman posits it’s not the experiencing self (1), but the remembering self (2) that determines what meaning you give to the experience, and consequently, what, if any, actions you take. The remembering self mainly remembers the end of the experience.
The consequence of this for difficult conversations is the following. Constructive actions follow from a constructive memory. The end of an experience is how we remember an experience, as either good or bad. Take care to design a good end to a difficult conversation if you want a constructive result.
How to design a good end to a difficult conversation
You determine beforehand what you want the other person to do (ideally) as a result of the conversation. This result is, next to the content of the message, the other half of what determines the flow and direction of the conversation.
You start with the message. You deliver the message in a manner that is compatible with the result you aim to achieve. Next you direct the whole process of the conversation towards creating an experience that ends well.Well is what both the result and the other person requires. These are the dots both of you connect to each other.
What you need is that the other person makes decisions that will evolve into actions that he or she takes. The remembering self (no. 2) is the one who makes the decisions and takes the actions. However, it is the experiencing self (no.1) that shows the emotions and reacts in real time to your message.
Difficult conversations that remain unproductive get stuck in an interaction with the experiencing self (no. 2) about the emotions that were experienced real time. Difficult conversations that become productive are remembered as constructive. The emotions have been dealt with during the conversation. This enables the remembering self to make constructive decisions and take actions that lead to the desired result.
In preparing for the meeting you should find out what the other person needs on the relationship side of the conversation to transcend the bad feelings about the message. Here is the golden rule that always works. What you would like to happen to you in a difficult conversation also goes for the person you will have a next difficult conversation with.
All’s well that ends well
The way you remember something determines the meaning it gets. The content of the message is what it is. By facilitating the memory you determine what it will become.
Do you want to know how to get positive results from difficult conversations?
The ability to handle difficult conversations well, and get the results you want from them, is an essential people skill. Coaching helps you prepare for difficult conversations and get the results you need from them.
Please feel free to ask us how we can help you to prepare for difficult conversations and get positive results.
What to do when you are the subject of a difficult conversation
Most articles on difficult conversations deal with the perspective of the initiator of the difficult conversation. This article is about ways to handle a difficult conversation of which you are the subject.
Do you recognize this situation? Your boss or a colleague wants to share something with you. It might be they want to say something about work you’ve not done well, behavior that has caused comment or disturbance, a client who no longer wishes to work with you, or they might tell you that you are fired. How do you react?How do you handle a difficult conversation of which you are the subject?
Many people we speak to regret that they weren’t prepared for these occasions. They reacted hurt or angry, or they became overly emotional, or they clammed up.
One thing they didn’t do in their own estimation: react adequately. They did not present their own point of view calmly, professionally and persuasively, and preserve the relationship. They felt they had sold themselves short.
It’s better to be prepared
Except for the conversation where you are told you are fired, you have to continue the relationship afterwards. That is one reason why, although it’s not always possible to prepare for these conversations beforehand, it is better to prepare now for difficult conversations that you will encounter later.
In this article, we’ll share some advice on how to prepare for a situation you might find yourself in one day. The preparation has as its end that you are able to:
Signal when you can’t react adequately
Present your point of view calmly and persuasively
Continue the relationship.
To the degree you prepare for an eventual difficult conversation and know your strengths and limitations, you practice control and reduce the difficulty of the conversation.
Know your stress reactions
Your stress reactions determine whether you are able to interact and respond adequately. You are dealing here with a situation you think of as difficult. It pays off to know what your stress reactions are so you can prepare for them and deal with them.
Below you’ll find the most common stress reactions people report in reaction to a difficult conversation of which they were the subjects. We put these reactions on a range with two opposing extremes. Most people fall somewhere at either side of the range.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having any of these reactions (apart from sometimes making it difficult for your counterpart in the conversation). It does help however to know your stress reactions and know how you can control them, so you won’t be reacting in a way you’ll regret afterwards.
Emotional/crying – Angry
Emotional/crying. People who become overly emotional in difficult conversations tend to tear up. This is often thought of as manipulative. Very few people know how to deal with someone who is crying. You might not like the reaction yourself, because it prevents you from adequately and professionally reacting to what is being said to you.
You could try the following: When you feel you are going to cry, observe what you are doing to your face. Immediately force your face back into a more neutral expression. Take some time and take a deep breath. Incredible though it may seem, this works to stop the tear reaction. It allows you to remain professional.
Anger. When you react with anger, a conversation becomes more difficult. This is even true when you are absolutely in the right, and the other person is not, and you therefore think you have every right to be angry. It’s all right to be angry – but does it serve your purpose to be angry at that moment? It’s more professional, and it probably serves your interests better, if you control your anger, listen to the other person’s arguments, and then calmly and professionally give your own opinion.
Acquiescent/Pleasing – Domineering/Antagonistic
Another reaction that is frequently reported is people tending to be overly acquiescent in a difficult conversation. What the other person says overwhelms them and they simply agree. Afterwards they feel bad about it.
This kind of behavior makes it initially easy for the other party in the conversation. However, even if much (or even all) of what is being said is true, always ask and take time to process. Don’t react immediately. When you are overwhelmed, you are not thinking clearly. When you do get overwhelmed, remember afterwards it is never too late to go back and set the record straight.
Domineering or antagonistic behavior is on the other extreme of the range. You don’t want to hear anything of what is being said, for example because you don’t trust the source. You reject or rebut everything out of hand. This is unproductive behavior, which will land you in many more difficult conversations. Make an effort to behave professionally. Hear the other person out. If your reaction remains that you cannot accept anything of what is said, postpone the conversation until you are able to have a two-sided conversation.
Clamming up – Verbosity
Do you have a tendency to clam up when it gets difficult? This probably has something to do with needing more time to process what is being said to you. As soon as you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by the situation, sit back. Say you need some time. You don’t have to react immediately. You do however have to say something. Acknowledging what has been said and verifying you have received the message correctly is a good start.
Verbosity is on the other extreme. This usually happens when you feel the need to defend yourself against what is being said. Don’t. Keep to the point. Acknowledge what is being said. Present your point of view calmly. Keep to the facts. Don’t explain too much. This is more effective and is regarded as a more professional attitude.
Look at earlier experiences and learn from them
Look at your past experiences with difficult conversations. What made them difficult for you? First look at the outcome. Follow its trail back to your own responses (or lack thereof). What was too much, what was not enough? And what was professional conduct, what could have been managed better? What led to a good outcome, what made the outcome worse? Look at the list below for inspiration.
Take what you have collected on the negative side as possibilities for development. This will probably serve you well in more situations than just in difficult conversations.
What can you add to make the conversation easier?
The secret of success with difficult conversations and much else is to focus only on what you can add and not on what the other person should do. What you miss in a situation you didn’t add. The same explanation is true for what is too much. You added it. Think of what needs to be added for you, and if possible for your counterpart as well, to make the conversation easier.
Your behavior during a difficult conversation of which you are the subject
Take into account what is most important to the other person. Probably this concerns the early acknowledgement of the message in some form. Avoid defensiveness or offensiveness, and connect to the other person.
The main requirement for connection is often ignored due to the tension of the difficult conversation. You have to connect to yourself first. What is most important to you? How do you remain ‘calm and collected’?
Acknowledge what is true immediately. Yet never react instantly to what is overwhelming. Take your time. Breathe, let it sink in. Wait till the right words come to mind, your throat is relaxed, your eyes don’t stare but see and you are able to speak a coherent sentence. If necessary, ask for some time to process. If this is not sufficient, postpone the conversation.
Make sure it is meaningful to you what you say and do. What you cannot meaningfully talk about you should pass over in silence for now. If you think the subject is worth discussing, but not at this time, say so. As soon as possible after the conversation, make arrangements for these subjects to be discussed in a next conversation.
Allow the other person/people to get to the point as soon as possible. Don’t waste time with anything. Interpret the other person as the messenger. Perhaps he or she brings the message in a manner that’s not so nice. The following might be the reason why.
Your counterpart is probably not relaxed either
It seems that a only a mere 3% of the managers and professionals who have to tackle difficult conversations feel they are up to the job. So chances are that they are not looking forward to having this difficult conversation with you either…
In reaction they probably focus too much on the message and too little on you as a person. When you are able to, try to bring in this relationship element. It pays off to make a difficult conversation a conversation between people instead of about problems. (For more about the importance of the relationship in difficult conversations, see What everybody needs to make difficult conversations easier.)
Prepare your message, if possible
Sometimes you know in advance you are going to have a difficult conversation. When this is the case, you can prepare all of the above, plus a little more.
Consider beforehand what your main message will be. Try out some approaches and find the right language. Your action now will be the basis for your future. Use the time wisely. Focus on your priority. Check if this has been the case for you about three-quarters of the time in of the planned time.
Preparation now pays off later
It’s never easy to be the subject of a difficult conversation. At least when you prepare yourself now, chances are your difficult conversation when it does occur will be conducted professionally by you and with a better outcome for everybody.
Do you want to know how you can handle difficult conversations that have you as its subject?
The ability to handle difficult conversations is an essential people skill, in which many aspects of managing a relationship come together. Coaching helps you prepare for difficult conversations that have you as its subject. You learn what you need to remain professional at all times, get a good result out of the conversation and retain the relationship.
Please feel free to ask us how we can help you to prepare for the difficult conversations that have you as its subject.
Sometimes in life we encounter situations were, looking back, we should have engaged in a conversation. They might have been difficult conversations, but having had them, we would have learned something valuable. I want to share three stories with you here, where a difficult conversation did not take place. If only…
Whose lemons are they anyway?
A long time ago, lingering on an airport while French pilots were on strike, I bought some thinly sliced freeze-dried lemons from Menton. These are, according to French connoisseurs, the best.
I was waiting, for a long time now – book finished, papers finished – everything finished but the strike. There was no internet in those days to while away the time. Whatever they tell you about life and how to live it – after a while one starts to feel annoyed. So picture the following.
I walked towards a quiet corner. Although indoors, there was a tiny garden, with old, gnarled olive trees and a gravel and sand Zen garden.
When I arrived someone was raking the gravel in a ribbed pattern. I took a seat on the wooden bench and watched him finishing the ripples. They went from bulky in the center to delicate at the outside, as if they faded away. In the meantime I took some slices of dried lemon from the paper bag beside me.
The man smiled at me, sat down on the bench next to me, put the bamboo rake he had used for drawing the pattern beside him, took not a few, but half of the lemons from the bag and started to eat them. Already annoyed, now I was angry: my lemons, you could at least ask. Quickly, I took my own grab from what was left. He smiled some more, slid the paper bag over to me, and said: You can have the rest, enjoy. He left.
Soon after they finally announced my plane. When we had taken off I looked in my travel pouch and found my own, unused, paper bag with lemons. It was me who ate his lemons. If only I would have had a conversation with him…
What to say to someone who is sending you away?
Skip forward some twenty years to the deathbed of my mother. The Second World War seriously impaired her life. Emotionally damaged, she developed very difficult behavior that was hard, and in the end nearly impossible to relate to. It grew worse as her illness progressed. She imagined us to be the enemy and she acted that way. She demanded we would leave. We went. We weren’t there when she died. Dying alone was something she had always feared.
Later we learned that her behavior looked similar to her earlier problems but was now also caused by the side effects of the illness and the medication. If only I would have had a difficult conversation with her anyway, however difficult it might have been, being the enemy in her eyes.
What if you are the one who is making it difficult?
Recently, during one of the weeklong mini-sabbaticals we organize, I talked to one of our eight guests. Late at night, sitting at the fireside, he talked to me about his life. He said he had made many mistakes. Looking back he thought they had almost all of them been the result of his focus on gaining freedom, and experiencing the lack of it. Now in his fifties, he wished he could have had a conversation with his younger self.
Would it be a difficult conversation, I asked him.
Probably, yet it would have prevented many difficulties, he said.
What would you have told yourself?
I would ask him what was most important to him. What was his real identity? Then I would tell him that what is difficult is made difficult. Made difficult by yourself.
How so, I asked.
You make it difficult by losing contact with what is most important to you. Now I would say: just share what is important to you. Don’t be afraid. It is exactly what is most important to many other people as well. The key is to engage and share what is important to you, no matter how difficult it may seem.
Difficult is what is not easy. Conversations are about sharing what is. Who cares whose lemons they are.
Do you want to know how you can tackle difficult conversations that need to be held?
The ability to conduct difficult conversations is an essential people skill, in which many aspects of managing a relationship come together. Coaching in the skills you need to conduct difficult conversations has many advantages. Not only will you able to conduct any conversation with ease and confidence, in your own style, but you also hone your leadership skills and your ability to handle conflicts.
Please feel free to ask us how we can help you to hone your skills in tackling the difficult conversations that need to be held.
Difficult conversations are just that to many managers and professionals: difficult. That’s what they tell us, at least. They also tell us they sometimes try to avoid or delay tackling the difficult conversation because they find them challenging.
The question is: why do we find having difficult conversations tough? And what would be needed to conduct a difficult conversation professionally and with ease?
First we will share some research with you why managers and professionals would rather delay or avoid difficult conversations.
Then we will provide you with 5 valuable and proven tips to use in preparation to the difficult conversation and during it. These tips will enable you to transform difficult conversations from a professional chore you’d rather avoid into the valuable experience of a job well done.
Why would you avoid a difficult conversation?
When you ask managers and professionals why they find having difficult conversations challenging, they often answer that they feel they are not well prepared. They miss the skills, they think, to tackle the difficult conversation in a professional and effective manner. This while the majority of them (80%) do believe that having difficult conversations is part of their role.
Because of this perceived lack of adequate preparation many managers and professionals worry about the emotional burden of the difficult conversation, both for the other(s) and for themselves.
An English survey on this subject found that the vast majority of the managers put off having a difficult conversation because they were concerned about the stress it would cause for the other person (97%), or because they were concerned about an angry response (>80%).
Proper preparation pays off in making a good job of it
Most of the people we spoke to about this subject expected they would make a good job of difficult conversations once they would have had proper preparation and skills.
That’s why we share 5 practical and proven tips with you on how to conduct any difficult conversation professionally and with success.
Rational understanding + emotional support makes any difficult conversation easier
A professional approach to a difficult conversation ensures that the content of the conversation has been understood, while the person who is the subject of the conversation feels treated in a respectful way. The relationship between the participants remains intact.
The fear of damaging the relationship, even short term, is one of the reasons managers and professionals give for avoiding or delaying difficult conversations. And they are right!
Keeping the relationship intact is what makes any difficult conversation easier. The right understanding of the content is a consequence of the right communication of the message with the person involved.
The rational explaining of the message is only part of the job. The other part is the emotional support. These two are complementary and strengthen each other: rational understanding + emotional support make any difficult conversation easier.
Because people tend to focus on the difficult message that has to be conveyed, it might even be argued that paying extra attention to the emotional support is the more important. It is certainly true that the weight of the difficult message needs to be compensated by an equal measure of emotional support.
To illustrate why this is important, it pays to look at the fundamental differences between these two approaches. One invites inclusion and the other leads to exclusion. Inclusion offers the one thing people crave for in general, and perhaps in particular in difficult conversations.
We refer to the original meaning of the words:
Conversation living among, to keep company with
Discussion shake apart, or dash to pieces
One of the greatest fears of people is to be rejected (as we indicated in Difficult conversations: what everybody needs to make them easier). One of the greatest needs of people, conversely, is the feeling of belonging. Where you speak to break down the argument of the other, or drive home your point (a discussion) this lacks the inherent connection of keeping company (a conversation).
In a difficult conversation the subject matter is mostly of a nature that does not naturally invite inclusion. That is why it is important to pay extra attention to the fact that you facilitate a conversation, not a discussion. The next tip elaborates on this.
Create connection and inclusion
In order to have a successful meeting it is crucial to take into account the basic fear of being rejected. You counter this by taking steps to make sure everybody feels included. This is especially pertinent if the content of the meeting makes it obvious that you may not be welcome anymore.
Having a conversation in which you create connection and inclusion achieves two things:
The difficult content becomes a shared concern. This furthers understanding and the possibility of a shared outcome.
Despite the difficult content, the relationship will not suffer. Emotions of stress and anger become part of the shared conversation and can be dealt with during it.
5 points to keep in mind during your difficult conversation
To make the difficult conversation easier for all involved you take care of those aspects of the conversation that enable emotional engagement and that support the relationship.
To achieve this it is a good idea to bear the following 6 points in mind.
Take your time and be calm yourself.
Take care it is clear what the subject matter of the conversation is and what the planning is of the meeting.
The other person needs to get sufficient space and time to express him/herself and to influence the interaction.
When necessary support the self-confidence of the other person, e.g. by talking about possible scenario’s and making clear you have the interests, values and position of the other at heart.
Don’t react, respond. Never disagree, even if the other person is clearly mistaken. Don’t react as if you are attacked. Connect to the emotions that make the other persons say what they are saying. Try to find common ground and introduce this into the conversation. Once you have found the common ground go on from there.
If you take care of these points during the conversation, you have come a long way toward making the difficult conversation easier. It becomes easier still when you prepare your own mindset before you begin the conversation.
Check your mindset before you start the conversation
Make sure you check your own mindset before the actual conversation takes place. Are you up to the challenge and able to remain calm? Take your time to prepare. Make sure you vent supercharged emotions before the actual conversation takes place. Also check the questions below:
Am I in a constructive mood?
Will I be able to regulate my emotions?
Did I prepare from my counterpart’s perspective?
Am I open to the needs of the other person?
Do I know how to focus on the problem and on the solution?
Can I be present and guide us through in a positive manner?
Do I know the main concerns, interests, values and constraints of all parties concerned?
Do I have a strategy to show I am reliable, and that the process is reliable?
Is the content of the message true?
Will what I say be understandable?
Is my intention heartfelt?
Will my communication be straightforward and helpful?
Do I know how to be appreciative with this person?
Whatever the difficulty of these conversations, they can be mastered. By mastering them you grow and gain both in professionalism and in humanity.
Life at times is tough, and we need someone to tell it as it is, but with compassion. Then the difficult conversation, instead of a chore, becomes a shared experience determined by the very connection everybody longs for. You can look to a job well done.
Do you want to know how you can be at your best in any difficult conversation?
The ability to conduct difficult conversations is an essential people skill, in which many aspects of managing a relationship come together. Coaching in the skills you need to conduct difficult conversations has many advantages. Not only will you able to conduct any conversation with ease and confidence, in your own style, but you also hone your leadership skills and your ability to handle conflicts.
Please feel free to ask us how we can help you to hone your skills in making difficult conversations easier.
What do you need to make difficult conversations easier?
People often blame the difficulty of difficult conversations on the subject of the conversation. However, our experience shows that much of the difficulty of difficult conversations is the result of how you conduct the conversation.
It turns out that how we experience the conversation determines largely how we evaluate the conversation afterwards – as difficult or easy. This experience is the result of the interaction and the relationship between the participants. This leads to the following insight:
✔You make any difficult conversation easier by taking into account what people need in the form of a relationship.
What people essentially need in a difficult conversation is simple. What they need is the same everyday need of a relationship with other people. People experience this relationship in the way you conduct the conversation. They feel it in the connection you make with them. These are ingredients of a conversation that are easy to add.
In this article we describe what most people need in regard to experiencing a relationship. We will also show you how meeting these relationship needs makes difficult conversations easier.
What everybody needs
Everybody’s relationship needs are shaped by individual preferences. Yet the need itself is common to all people. Every human being has the need to belong. Click To Tweet The need to belong is an innate and existential need of all people. When we are ignored for even a short while (even as short as two minutes) our brain experiences this as if it were physical pain. The need to belong is how our brain is wired and it is part of our survival mechanism.
The feeling of belonging is closely related to a feeling of self-esteem and control, and even to the right to exist. These findings are the result of research done by the American social psychologist Kip Williams.
Williams did extensive research on social exclusion or the feeling of not belonging. He refers to it as ‘ostracism’, after the practice in Classical Greece to exclude someone from society as a punishment for unacceptable behavior.
What happens when we feel ignored or excluded
According to Williams, when we are ignored or our needs are neglected the same thing happens to every human being. Our sense of recognition vanishes. We don’t feel at ease. Next our self-confidence diminishes. We feel sad and angry.
Most people react to the feeling of being excluded with behavior focused on regaining the positive attention and approval of others. When these reactions to regain the sense of belonging fail, most people will react with passive or even active aggressive behavior.
The same process often arises in difficult conversations. In difficult conversations people may experience the conversation as being about them, not with them. The content seems to trump the relationship.
What makes it difficult is something missing on the relationship side
It’s possible to recognize a defence against exclusion in a conversation by the uncomfortable atmosphere. The awkwardness appears to be about the content of the conversation, but in reality something else is going on.
It is a sign something is lacking on the relationship side. Directing your attention to the relationship offers the solution to make the difficult conversation easier for all parties involved.
To the degree in which the conversation includes all people concerned, and answers their particular need of belonging, the interaction will be easier and even effortless.
How do you make people feel included in a difficult conversation?
The existential need to belong expresses itself in two crucial points that merit your attention. If you take care of these two points, any difficult conversation will definitely become easier.
The two points of attention for relationship needs are:
Safety and trust
To be heard and seen
The content of a difficult conversation remains what it is: a subject that is difficult because of the content of the message and its consequences. By taking care of the two points of attention for relationship needs you positively influence the course of the exchange.
A hard message softened
The message of a difficult conversation usually has hard consequences for at least one of the parties involved. Imagine a hard thing thrown at you. It makes a crucial difference if it is handed to you instead of being thrown.
Handing it to someone instead of throwing it is what you do when you offer safety and trust during the conversation. You take care people feel they are included. There is someone that listens to them and that they can trust. They feel heard and seen.
The hard message itself has not changed. But you have softened it by the atmosphere, the contact and your manner of speaking. You have met a universal and fundamental human need.
Make it personal to make difficult conversations easier
You make the abstract concepts ‘safety’ and ‘trust’ personal by inquiring into what the person you speak with might need. You can do this in preparation and introduce it into the conversation.
The largest part of creating safety and trust has to do with intention, attitude, language, body language, openness, concern, space, time, respect….
The character of the difficult conversation changes essentially when the participants feel safe, trust each other and have the feeling they are involved. The conversation is no longer just about the content. You have a conversation with each other. Everybody feels heard and seen. The difficult content will be easier to digest.
The result is that the difficult conversation achieves its goal, while being easier for all parties involved.
Do you want to know how you make difficult conversations easier?
Making difficult conversations easier is an essential people skill, in which many aspects of managing a relationship come together. Coaching in the skills you need to conduct difficult conversations has many advantages. Not only will you able to conduct any conversation with ease and confidence, in your own style, but you also hone your leadership skills and your ability to handle conflicts.
Please feel free to ask us how we can help you to hone your skills in making difficult conversations easier.
Most of the time the subject of the conversation is the reason we believe a conversation will be difficult before it even takes place.
You can think of examples of difficult conversations like: assessment interviews, appearing before a commission, an exit interview, or for instance a difficult conversation with a doctor, with a difficult client, an annoying colleague, or with a demanding boss.
In short, we experience difficult conversations all the time. That is, until we have found what makes the content easier to discuss.
This article describes why some conversations are experienced as difficult conversations. It shows how by bearing in mind that a conversation is more than just sharing of content, you will be able to make difficult conversations easier.
Consider what ‘difficult’ actually means. When you go back to the original meaning, ‘difficult’ literally means ‘not easy’. In the context of ‘difficult conversations’ this has a very simple consequence:
In a difficult conversation you don’t do what will make it easier.
This may sound like stating the obvious. But what is the case here?
Despite the difficult subject matter of difficult conversations it turns out it is that not primarily the subject matter of the conversation that causes people to experience the conversation as difficult. It is mainly the manner in which the conversation was held that is responsible.
Many people actually do not do what would make difficult conversations easier. Of course this is unintentional. When people dread sharing the content of the conversation, they tend to concentrate too much (sometimes even exclusively) on the subject matter. They want to control the content to make it as easy as possible.
Paradoxically, this approach is detrimental to the connection and relationship people need to experience in a conversation, especially in a difficult one. This experience of a relationship is exactly what would have made the difficult conversation easier.
The paradox of the difficult conversation
The content of a conversation, however difficult it may be, never determines how the conversation is experienced. What makes the conversation difficult or easy for the participants is the quality of the relationship.
Difficult or Easy?
How you experience the quality of the relationship (as difficult or easy) is determined primarily by the feeling the contact engenders. A conversation you experience as difficult leads to a feeling of uneasiness.
We tend to ascribe the feeling of uneasiness to the content of the difficult conversation. That is after all why we are having the meeting.
But it turns out that when you dig deeper, people always report that the feeling of uneasiness was primarily the result of the quality of the contact, not the difficult content of the conversation. Too much weight and attention was focused on the difficult content. The relation between the participants suffered from neglect. This is what made the conversation difficult for all participants.
Evolution and the difficult conversation
What all people need is the feeling of belonging and being allowed to stay in the situation. There’s no danger, you won’t be sent away, we’re in it together. This is how we are wired.
We people are social beings. This is very deeply ingrained in both mind and body. By taking this into account you will make a conversation with a difficult content much easier. The content will moreover be more easily understood and digested.
Content + Contact
In every conversation there are two aspects. There is the content of the conversation on the one hand, and the way in which the conversation is conducted on the other. Both aspects influence your attitude, your behaviour and your communication.
We know from hundreds of cases that a conversation is primarily made difficult by how we handle the second aspect, i.e. the manner in which we conduct the conversation and handle the relationship. These are factors that, unlike the content of the conversation, you are able to control.
How do you make a difficult conversation easier?
In an easy conversation the two aspects of conversations are in balance. These two aspects are:
The content (what the conversation is about) and
The process (how you conduct the conversation).
A difficult conversation arises when the content has become of overriding importance and the relationship is given too little weight. Content and process are no longer in balance.
When content and process are in balance with each other a difficult conversation becomes easier.
✔A rule of thumb for difficult conversations: When the content becomes heavier, the process has to be emphasized in proportion.
This means that when you feel more pressure because of the content of the conversation, you pay more attention to how you conduct the conversation.
The rule of thumb is just as valid for those conducting these conversations as for those who are the receiver of the difficult message. Both have the possibility to pay attention to the process.
The one bringing the difficult message pays deliberate attention to what the receiver of the message might require. The receiver of the message has the possibility to call attention to what he or she needs.
By keeping the process in mind and effectively paying attention to people’s relationship needs the conducting of difficult conversations will become if not easy, at least doable.
Do you want to know how you can learn how to conduct difficult conversations with more ease and better results for all involved?
Being able to hold a difficult conversation with ease is an essential people skill, in which many aspects of managing a relationship come together.
We have extensive experience in conducting difficult conversations, and in difficult conversations coaching for managers and (medical) professionals.
We will be happy to put our expertise at your service. Feel free to give us a ring or send us a mail. We can offer you a personalised report of your strengths and possible pitfalls in conversations and/or personal coaching conversations to make you feel at ease in any difficult conversation.
It is most likely you do. It’s true for almost everyone. However, although we like it ourselves, most of us are not very good at listening to others.
This article tells you some things about why most of us are not very good at listening. It also tells you how you can stand out from the crowd and become a good listener. (At the end there’s a fun exercise to test your listening skills).
Why effective listening is a crucial soft skill
Although of course you need to be able to make your point, actually being a good listener is at least as important for the good career and life.
Being a good listener gives you leverage. When people know you have listened to them, they will listen to you in return. You get more done. Listening builds relationships and creates trust. It gives people what they need: being noticed and listened to. If you work with people, in whatever capacity, effective listening is a crucial soft skill.
Why our listening skills are not so good
So why, if listening is so important, are many of us so poor at it? First of all because we live in a world, as Susan Cain’s best selling book about introverts says, “that can’t stop talking”.
From an early age we are socialized to be good talkers, and poor listeners. It is an accidental consequence of the emphasis we in Western society put on the individual and his or her responsibility to make something of their own life.
This is not bad in itself. It is just bad news for our listening skills. Talking and effectively making our point carries a premium over listening in our society. We encourage winning in a competitive environment. Extrovert behavior generally receives more respect than introvert behavior.
Really, we are taught to listen in order that we may respond. And that’s not really listening.
Effective listening is a complex skill
Listening seems such a basic skill. In fact it is quite complex. Many barriers prevent that the message sent is also the message that is received through listening.
Think of things like personal interests, prejudices, habits, language meanings, gender, hierarchy, extroversion – introversion, tension, and much more. All these listening barriers influence what we actually hear, and what we listen to.
We think too fast
A main difficulty for effective listening is the fact that we think much faster than we talk. We think at about 700 words a minute, while we talk at perhaps a 100. Now just imagine someone listening to you talking a 100 words a minute, while they are thinking ahead at the rate of 700.
It takes a conscious effort, training, and a real commitment to slow down and pay attention to those 100 words.
What do you pay attention to?
In this respect it is remarkable that the original meaning of listening is: to pay attention. If you decide to become a good listener you make it easier if you assess what you are actually paying attention to while listening to someone.
Probably you pay attention foremost, and not even by conscious choice, to your own point of view. This is partly due to what we mentioned above: we are trained to listen so we may respond.
This sets you up to make your point. It does not encourage you to really listen to the point the other person is making. We are taught to control, manage or at least influence the conversation. There’s even worse news for listening in tense or conflict situations. It turns out that as the stakes rise, our willingness or ability to listen to others diminishes.
Communication is about talking and listening
Many conversations start out with both parties trying to convince the other of the merits of their own case. If this is the case, both parties listen to the other in order to be able to respond and shore up their side of the argument.
What would happen if one of the two parties breaks away from the habit of listening to defend one’s own point of view, and really starts listening?
It turns out that this saves a lot of time and leads to better results for both parties.
How do you do this?
How to listen effectively
Hearing uses just one of our senses. Effective listening requires much more. Effective listening is composed of:
1 Paying attention
As we argued before, paying attention is not something we automatically do when we are listening. If you want to become a good listener, train yourself to pay attention to what the other person is saying to you. Point 2 and 3 will actively help you to do this.
2 Attempting to understand where the other person is coming from
When it comes to listening, most of us listen from within our own world. We hear what the other person is saying. But we immediately interpret this along the lines of our own history, interests, prejudices, etc.
Effective listening means you are aware of where you are coming from (your world) and actively try to hear what the other person’s ‘world’ is like.
You don’t have to agree. It’s not necessary to like what the other person says. You don’t have to throw away any of your arguments. You just have to aim to understand the other person.
There is a Native American saying that goes something like: Don’t judge another person until you’ve walked in their shoes for a while. Try to do something similar while listening. Hear where the other person comes from.
3 Showing you are really trying to listen and actually learning during the conversation
You can actually show that you are listening to someone. This is very conducive to a good conversation. Here are some simple clues you could apply in a conversation. These clues only open the door to a relationship if you don’t use them as a skill or a means to an end.
Some advice on showing the other person you are listening
To show the other person you care and listen actively bear in mind to pay attention to these hints.
Find an inner reason why you are interested in the other person.
Realize that everyone finds it encouraging if someone is taking the trouble to understand.
Make sure you take in the information given. This is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. Sympathize and find something to show empathy with in a natural manner.
When you listen, don’t interfere with the other person. Wait until the other person is finished.
Take some time before you answer.
Acknowledge what the other person says.
Summarize and reflect in the other person’s words.
Ask if your rendering of what the other person meant is correct.
Realize everyone likes it when you agree with them. Find what you agree with and include this in the conversation.
Ask open questions. (Open questions are questions that leave other options open than just yes and no. In this case there’s an added hint. A really open question is one where you don’t know the answer yet).
To be a good listener is giving what people really want: someone who cares. What you listen to shows what you care about.
We have argued that effective listening is a crucial soft skill. We believe listening adds value to any relationship. It allows you to build trust and gain leverage. We know that being listened to is also important. We offer you both: as coaches we listen to you, and as coaches in soft skills, we can advice you how to become a really good listener.
A fun way to find out how good you are at listening
This is a variation on the famous game where one person whispers something to the next person, and this person has to relay the message to the next, and so on.
This exercise involves just two people. When you do this exercise with a friend it might be very revealing about how good your listening skills actually are. You sit together. One person tells something to the other. Person A speaks. While Person A speaks, Person B listens and doesn’t talk. Person B remains silent for the period you agreed on, e.g. five minutes. (It has been done with one person listening for 45 minutes.)
After the five minutes person B tells what Person A spoke about. Next Person A relates what was actually said and meant. Now Person B tells what was going on in his/her mind during the five minutes they were listening to Person A.
Have fun, and start listening. You are sure to hear something worthwhile.
 Susan Cain, “Quiet. The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”