5 Steps to Mastering Difficult Conversations

Leadership skills are a key part of any career and success path. The Bigger Pie hosted a workshop on Mastering Difficult Conversations. You can read the highlights and catch up on the talk here.

You often will hear in conflict resolution “transform conflict into opportunity”. Difficult times means that values are at stake, they’re an opportunity to talk about something important.

There is an opportunity to learn about something under the surface. We learn about people to strengthen relationships, to build trust and motivation, and reading this, watching the talk, you’ll have a sense for how to transform or how to find the opportunity in difficult conversations.

Here are five steps of mastering difficult conversations with lots of examples.

First the neuroscience

There is part of our brain that’s designed to represent anything that’s to do with ourselves. So our identity, our possessions, what we look like, our friends, our associates, our ranking, anything that we like, there’s this brain circuit that activates that.

If that’s all we had, we’d always be at odds with other people’s perspectives because we have a very unique view on the world. What we also have that allows us to be social creatures, is we have a perspective taking center.

One of the components of empathy in the brain is there is literally something, a neuro circuit that allows us to take the perspective. We have mirror neurons that mirror other people, but there’s more than that, it allows us to simulate something from another person’s perspective of others.

Another part of the brain is the social threat center, if we perceive anything to be socially threatening, like judgment or blame, this part of our brain, which is the same part that covers physical pain and physical threat will light up and then we’re tend to fight, flight or freeze.

We’re not going to be able to deal constructively or have people listen to us constructively if this social threat center is activated.

Emotions are contagious. So if you have negative emotions that’s going to bleed into other people, causing negative emotion in you and others.

The five steps for handling a difficult conversation.

Step 1 Frame: Positive aspirations and common purpose

Remember even if you’re saying no, if you’re bringing bad news, if you’re telling someone that their idea’s terrible or you’re telling someone that their behaviour needs improvement, it always comes from a positive place.

Like every negative emotion that we have, every negative experience we have underneath that are positive aspirations. And we can always link these to common purpose and positive intentions.

The idea is to frame the conversation, both literally what you will say to them, but also in preparation for yourself, so that you feel like, “I just really have good intentions here and I’m bringing something positive to the table.”

Don’t use negatives. Say what you want, not what you don’t want.

Example, instead of saying, “I want to stop endless debates”, you can say “I want to find a way to have more efficient discussions.”

The other thing about aspirations is they should be for the general good and not a personal aspiration.

Instead of saying, “I want you to stop interrupting” you could say “I would like to finish speaking before you respond.”

Another way of finding the positive aspiration common purpose is you have to do some thinking about what else is at stake. What’s beyond the immediate wants.

If a colleague is always speaking over you in client meetings you can say “I would like to finish speaking before you respond as I want it to have a chance to speak about the areas that I was in charge of. I want all the members of the team to be perceived as equal contributors. I want the client to have confidence, all team members, not just one.”

Step 2 Emotional support

The big part of knowing how to manage difficult conversations is knowing how to support emotions. Learning how to support your own emotions also helps you learn how to support others emotions.

There are three main ways actually in research that show how to reduce the distress in your brain:

  1. Remind people and yourself of goodwill and care, supportiveness, that you care, that people care. Just saying those words helps.

In a neuroscience experiment it revealed if you’re shown caring photos before a threat response, it significantly reduces your threat response. That’s one way to help support negative emotions and alleviate.

  1. Label Emotions.

Research finds both in psychology and neuroscience that even if you don’t really think that labelling emotions is going to help you, it still helps you. It still calms down the distress response in the brain. Be careful not to confuse emotions with interpretations or judgements about what other people were doing.

  1. Reframe negative emotions in the context of our goals, our wants, and our needs.

Allowing emotional elaboration and for others to articulate their emotions. You can see this example in action here 

To lessen negative emotions reframe distressing events. And one of the best ways to do that is to reframe them to needs and values. So connect them to your higher goals, to your principles that you care about. Link them to these universal principles. It can be seen as a bridge for empathy, because everyone can understand wanting acceptance or belonging or appreciation.

Step 3 Objective/Non Personal description of situation

Learning to be very objective and indisputable with your description of the situation. We want to minimise any chance of it sounding personal, sounding negative associated with them sounding judgmental, blaming, et cetera.

For example, if you said to someone : “Just be less aggressive”, aggressive is an interpretation. It’s a characterisation. Someone could think that they were not being aggressive. They were just enthusiastic or their natural self.

Think like you’re a video camera or you’re like seeing something through a video camera, capturing what you can see or hear literally.

It’s different from how we normally process the world with our judgments and interpretations. Step away from judgement as it’s not useful when you’re having difficult conversations to use words that might trigger their threat response.

Minimise possible defensive reactions. Instead of saying “you ignored my point”, you could say “you didn’t respond”, or “your response didn’t address my points”.

Here’s an example on how to deal with people who are hard, aggressive communicators specifically on giving feedback to aggressive communicators.

Step 4 Share emotions safely (optional)

Why would we share emotions? Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes it’s not right. Sometimes it’s not big enough deal. It’s a judgment call you need to make, but there are benefits. It can increase transparency and authenticity and can build trust.

It allows you to explore the problem more transparently. It helps especially for small things, then you’re able to establish that willingness to discuss things openly before they become big problems.

It improves understanding. Difficult conversations are hard because we’re afraid of all the negative emotions that might be involved. And without fully understanding the landscape of how people are feeling, what needs they have, what concerns they have, their values.

And then finally sharing emotions promotes psychological safety, which is the concept of being able to freely say whatever is on your mind and feel safe that people are going to respond safely, no matter what you say.

Psychological safety is where innovation, bonding, flourishing and wellbeing take place.

We express emotions safely by taking ownership of having them and linking them to our underlying concerns and unmet aspirations. The idea is by doing that, you’re taking the attention away from blame of the other person, and you’re focusing the attention towards your concerns and unmet aspirations.

For example, instead of saying “I didn’t get a chance to present. I was disappointed” you could say “I didn’t get a chance to present. I was disappointed because I really wanted feedback on that part of the projects that I’d worked hard on.”

So now the person has a deeper understanding of, not just that you were upset, but why, and they feel more empowered to understand, really pointing towards the larger issue at stake, so then they’re able to empathise.

Step 5 Check in and discuss strategies

Check in and be collaborative and discuss possible strategies.

Sometimes the difficult conversation is you’re breaking up, you’re finishing a client relationship or any relationship, then there’s not necessarily strategies, but if it’s a teammate, then you might want to discuss strategies for ways of moving forward.

Checking in is very important. What’s their perspective? What were their feelings and needs? They could have a completely different idea of what was going on. They might’ve had concerns or other circumstances that you just had no idea about, and this is a chance for them to discuss it.

You want it to be specific when you actually come up with strategies, the same words can mean very different things to different people. And this is what goes wrong in all our communication.

Checking in, understanding what’s going on, being very specific about the language and strategies, because there’s just so much room for uncertainty and the wrong interpretations.

This is where you use the perspective taking using an attitude of Non Judgmental Curiosity, really trying to find a way to be curious about their perspective on the situation. It’s very important to work on our own emotions and, to feel that we can support our own emotions before we can support looking at someone else’s perspective and their emotion.

Checking in question examples: “What was it like for you?” and “What’s your perspective?”

An example of a non-specific strategy. I just want to make sure everyone feels heard.

A more specific strategy would be to ask “Can you summarise what you heard everyone say in turn so that people know that they’re getting their points across?” or if they’re an argumentative character “would you be up for acknowledging people’s perspectives before you disagree with them?”

Now that we understand the skills, then it really takes time and practice and thinking in terms of preparation for lots of situations.

With thank to Dr Anne Hsu for leading the workshop.

Dr. Anne Hsu is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.  Her research combines Artificial Intelligence with psychology and neuroscience insights to train and support employees with difficult workplace conversations.  Her training includes live webinar workshops supplemented with an AI-powered platform for continued support and practice.  She is also an accredited workplace mediator with the OCN.

See more here: https://www.diplomacydojo.com/

Useful links

Dojo Diplomacy Scenario1: https://app.diplomacydojo.com/biggerpie/scenario1

How to use the app: https://www.loom.com/share/13ec09fbd7…

Diplomacy Dojo YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCe-1…

Communication Skills: Empathetic Listening – Inside Out, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t685W…