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How to Have Difficult Work Conversations in an Emotionally Intelligent Way

August 27, 2019

iStock-1051774234For most of us, the majority of conversations are not difficult, they just flow. When we talk about having a difficult conversation we normally mean that there is a real or perceived risk regarding the person and/or topic. Risks can be reputational risk, escalation, relationship damage, humiliation (personal competence) or losing out.

The bottom line is our fear around having the conversation. So, how do we overcome this fear, control our behaviours during the conversation, and get the right outcome? Below I share the five key steps to having difficult work conversations in an emotionally intelligent way; but first it is helpful to understand why some conversations are so difficult to initiate.

First, it's important to note that our brains are wired for threat, and as Daniel Goleman brought to mass consciousness, we can be hijacked emotionally and go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Furthermore, as we get overtaken by emotion, our higher cortex begins to shut down and we effectively become stupid - disabling us from remaining coherent in the exchange. You can read more about this here.

Additionally, relationships often have a history. The research by John Gottman on couples led to him being able to predict, with 90%+ accuracy, the success or otherwise of relationships. Although with couples and not colleagues, it does signal key elements to why some work relationships might be tricky and have precursor elements to making conversations difficult. His "four horsemen of the apocalypse" indicators of vulnerable relationships are Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

He also identified two relationship saviours: being the first to seek reconciliation (and often say sorry), and "the rule of 5," which states that relationships survive if there are five positive interactions for every difficult interaction.

It is of core importance to human beings to belong and be accepted. The threat of social isolation is primal, and typically we will make many compromises to remain part of the group. A threat will be massive if the perceived risk is being isolated, for example giving negative feedback to your manager. In line with this, Griffin and Tyrell emphasise the importance of emotional needs such as status, belonging, and connection to others.

Potential threat to these needs may serve to stop us from having the conversation.  So, there are good reasons why conversations on tricky subjects are avoided by people. However, a contrasting view by Marshall Rosenberg is that we have the natural capability and choice to communicate with compassion.

Pulling this together, here are the five steps on how to handle difficult work conversations in an emotionally intelligent way:

STEP 1 – Getting in to the right mindset (before the conversation)
  • Re-frame the discussion as conflict resolution. See the conversation as a process rather than something that is finite.

  • Identify a constructive desired outcome from the discussion and align your intention with this in mind.

  • Get your breathing right. 7/11 breathing as a practiced skill is very powerful in any scenario where emotions are heightened. Find out more here.

STEP 2 – Engage with rapport
  • Get the timing and location as right as you can. Look for neutral territory and a time when you are most likely to get positive energies in play.

  • Focus on rapport. Seek to listen and understand, and mirror and match their energies.

  • Express as early as possible your (prepared) intention and desired outcome. This is your return base if the conversation starts to spiral down.

STEP 3 – Shared understanding
  • The conversation should be dynamic and ideally a "dance," with each person taking turns.

  • It's absolutely key to focus on needs and emotions as much as content and thinking. Exploring the other's needs, wants, and perceptions first will build rapport, as will summarising and feeding back your understanding of what he or she has said.

STEP 4 – Agreement
  • If you can get to an agreed "yes," then summarise, clarify, and end on a positive note.

  • If there is no agreement, then talk about what process may best work towards a resolution, or at very least agree to consider what the process might be. The key here is to maintain movement towards resolution.

STEP 5 – Confirmation
  • True agreement and impact can only be judged by the follow through.

  • Confirming actions and then acknowledging movement is also important for longer term resolution and any future engagement in the relationship.

  • And if there is no movement then a no-blame approach to revisiting the agreements may be the next, brave step.

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Bill Davies Bill Davies is a Principal Consultant at PSI Talent Management International. He has worked in coaching, leadership development and personal development for over 30 years. He has a number of strings to his bow including being a trained trainer, having management experience, lecturing at the University of the West of England, leading a business development unit, and writing career development material.