How to get the result you want from a difficult conversation

All’s well that ends well

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?

The end of a conversation determines what happens next. Click To Tweet

Research by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman[1] 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.

By  Iris Dorreboom and Rudi de Graaf

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 skillCoaching 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.

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[1] Daniel Kahneman, Ted Talk, feb 2010. The riddle of experience vs. memory. Daniel Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

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