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Cultivating Skills for Difficult Conversations

Did you know understanding your personal approach and style to deal with difficult conversations can help boost your confidence? 

Today we’ll share how you can cultivate skills for navigating tough conversations. We’ll also be breaking down some key communication skills to add to your toolbox!

Understanding Your Approach to Difficult Conversations 

Does the thought of delivering feedback to your employees make you feel anxious? Does conflict at work trigger feelings of unease or fear? 

Here’s a list of common engagement styles during difficult conversations: 

  • Defensiveness: feeling misunderstood or misrepresented and not trusting that an opportunity to clarify yourself is available. 
  • Avoidance: avoiding the dreaded conversation for as long as possible. 
  • Anxiousness: another form of dread; anxiety can bubble up due to uncertainty about how the other person will respond. 
  • Aggressiveness: not feeling confident that you will be heard, so you push your agenda. 
  • Shut-down: feel like you’re not able to cope with an internal emotional responseso you detach from the conversation. 
  • Push-over”: not feeling confident to stand your ground, so you say what you think someone wants to hear. 
How to boost your confidence in difficult conversations 

Understanding your typical engagement style is not meant to cement you in your approach. Instead, it enables you to discern areas for growth through understanding your “natural” approach to difficult conversations. 

Growth through skill-building 

Developing new skills and building on your existing strengths will make you more confident in future conversations. You’ll notice areas for skill-building by paying attention to how you currently approach difficult conversations. 

Key Communication Skills  

Why does curiosity matter? 

Curiosity is a powerful tool during difficult conversations. We can get curious about ourselves and notice how our internal experience is affecting us. We can also get curious about others, wondering what the conversation feels like from their perspective. 

How do we get curious? 

First and foremost, curiosity requires self-awareness. Self-awareness means understanding our values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviours, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. 

This means we recognize when our emotions are triggered during difficult conversations. Instead of reacting to our triggers, we respond mindfully to our emotions A simple example is to notice how we feel after receiving or delivering some difficult feedback. Then try to stay engaged in the moment rather than the emotion. 

When we cultivate this kind of mindful awareness, we can become curious about our internal experiences. Which then allows us to become curious about the other person’s experience as well. 

What is perspective-taking? 

One of the strongest skills to cultivate for difficult conversations is perspective-taking. This is different from empathy which is “the ability to take on and relate to someone else’s feeling or emotions. Instead, perspective-taking is concerned with how the other person perceives a situation. We remove the focus on emotions and instead put ourselves in others’ shoes. We suspend our judgments and biases, focusing on what the experience must be like for them. 

Why does perspective-taking matter? 

Perspective-taking enables us to cultivate compassion for another’s experience. When we see things as they do, we’re more likely to think in collaborative ways that lead to constructive conversations. 

What is active listening? 

Active listening is a key component of perspective-taking. 

Active listening encompasses several different skill sets: 

  • Paying attention 
  • Reserving judgment 
  • Reflecting 
  • Clarifying 
  • Summarizing 
  • Sharing 

Paying attention and reserving judgment are self-explanatory. Reflecting is a little more complex. The purpose of reflecting is to check that we understand what the other person is intending to communicate. 

Paraphrasing is a skill used to summarize and repeat what your conversation partner just saidAlternatively, reflecting goes beyond paraphrasing to demonstrate that you understand how the person feels about what they said. 

It is important to always make space for the other person to correct your understanding. 

For example: I keep bringing up this issue, but nothing seems to change! 

Reflecting: “You have tried to bring attention to this problem many times and feel frustrated that it hasn’t been given the attention it deserves.

Clarifying is a great way to demonstrate that you care about what the other person is saying. Clarifying questions can be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions to clarify simple concepts. However, clarifying is usually most productive with open-ended questions that let people explain themselves fully. It is better to ask for clarification than to guess what the other person is saying through reflecting incorrectly. 

Clarifying statements usually start with something like, “I want to make sure I am understanding you correctly. You are saying that…” 

Summarizing provides an opportunity to recap important themes from the conversation so that everyone is on the same page. 

Finally, sharing is an opportunity for you to express yourself after you have learned more about your conversation partner’s perspective. This means expressing any thoughts, ideas, and emotions you have relevant to the conversation. 

Why does active listening matter? 

Active listening matters because it forms the foundation of mutual understanding. It shows our conversation partner that we care. Therefore, active listening sets the tone and energy of the conversation. 

What is validation? 

In difficult conversations, the message you are trying to convey to the other person is validationValidation means that you understand and recognize their perspective, whether you agree with them or not.  

For example: I understand how feeling that your concern was dismissed by management made you feel frustrated. 

In this scenario, you are a member of management. You know that this employeeconcern was taken seriously, but a big project deadline took attention away from addressing the issue for several days. Instead of arguing that management does care, you focus on what the experience was like for the employee. Afterward, you can explain the situation, and the employee will be more likely to listen because they already feel understood.

Why does validation matter? 

Validation is a powerful feeling that we can convey to the person we’re speaking to by indicating that we understand their experience. Understanding builds connection, trust, and willingness within the other party to listen. 

When should de-escalation tactics be used? 

Sometimes conversations are not productiveMaybe emotions are running high and preventing progress in the discussion. The important thing to do here is noticeWhile you do not have control over your conversation partner’s reactions, you can decide when it is best to walk away and try again later.  

What are some helpful de-escalation tactics and phrases? 
  • State your belief that coming to an agreeable solution is possible and a priority for you. 
  • If things escalate and cooling-off seems necessary, state, “I think I need a few minutes to think about this. Can we get some air and come back in 5 minutes?” 
  • Validate the other person: “I understand how [situation] left you feeling [emotion]. Would you be willing to tell me more about that?” 
  • Communication through body language: avoid crossing your arms or turning away from the other person.

Interested in learning more about conducting difficult conversations? Check out our blog post on Tips for Having Productive Tough Conversations! 

For more information on communication skills you would like to build, check out these TedTalks ranging from structuring persuasive conversations to re-building trust! 

Need help engaging in difficult workplace conversations? Contact us at[email protected] and let us know how we can help you!