Taming the Tough Conversation

A CEO I worked for asked me one day, “Is there anything you are afraid of?” My quick reply, “Not at work.” As I remember it, he just shook his head.

Upon reflection, my response was an unintended exaggeration. The reality is that I’ve had my share of fears at work, but having difficult conversations isn’t one of them, and that was the context for the question asked that day.

I think it’s natural for us to enter higher stakes discussions with bosses, and even peers, with some trepidation. I think most of the fear comes from feeling that we aren’t enough for the situation. Smart enough. Strong enough. Competent enough. Skilled enough. Old enough. Young enough. Your personal not enough here__________.

The way I see it, there is a high probability that the person in the discussion feels much like we do. He may mask it with a bit of bravado, but the fact remains that no matter what level of success he has reached, the voice in his head is continually butting into his thoughts. Just like it is in all of us. In his and our defense, we may choose to notice the voice and move on without reacting to its, usually unhelpful, message.

The fact that we are more alike than different can empower us. When asked about being afraid, it was about an objectively influential person in my orbit. In my view, I had a message to deliver, had prepared myself adequately for questions, and was planning to have the conversation with this person because it was my job. I didn’t spend any time psyching myself out about failing. I intended to succeed in getting my message across. It was no more complicated than that.

Prepare for Success

As you think about holding a high stakes conversation, there are things you can do to prepare yourself for success:

1. Give yourself clarity on the outcome of the discussion. What is it you want to have at the end of the conversation? Is it an improved relationship? Is it higher pay? Is it a better job? Is it enhanced credibility? Whatever it is, write down the outcome before creating your message.

2. Know your topic cold. To be clear, this should not be an exercise where you try to anticipate the 100 questions that may be asked at the meeting. That type of preparation locks people up and leads to exhaustion and frustration. In the unlikely event that an item surprises you, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know. But I will find out.” One exception to the surprise rule is: What’s your name?

3. Prepare to listen carefully to what’s said in the discussion and even more so for what’s not said. If your message is falling flat, it may be because the other person has something on his mind unrelated to the discussion. He may believe the discussion should go a different way. When in doubt, ask for clarity. “Is this discussion meeting your needs? Is there something else we should talk about first? Are we covering the things that you want to talk about?” Listen and adjust.

4. Simplify your message. Speaking for an hour about something is more comfortable than speaking for one minute on the same topic. Taking time to work on your message, to boil it down to its essence, can be difficult, but it’s worth the investment.

5. Stay present along the way. Remember that non-verbal cues represent 60% of meaning in a conversation, so it serves you to stay in the moment, adjust to facial expressions and body language, and adjust your approach as needed.

6. Use fear as a signal to step up. If you are fearful, nervous, or otherwise out of sorts, remember that these emotions aren’t an end in themselves. Use emotions to motivate you into action. Practice your discussion with a respected friend, partner, or peer to work through the jitters.

7. Hit pause on your ego. The temptation to be right in a difficult discussion can be significant. Go back to your outcome and make sure you take the breaths required to keep you from going down that seemingly righteous path.

Takeaway: Taking the time to prepare yourself for tough conversations expands your ability to hold them. Holding tough conversations expands your leadership abilities. Expanding your leadership abilities increases your leadership effectiveness. Increasing your leadership effectiveness helps build high-performing teams and companies. High-performing teams and companies consistently deliver results.