“We need to talk”

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:

  • React adequately
  • 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.

  • Language
  • Body-language
  • Attitude
  • Confidence
  • Tension
  • Preparation
  • Avoidance

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.

By  Iris Dorreboom and Rudi de Graaf

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.

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