Managing Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are an expected part of leadership (and life in general). They can occur in a range of circumstances about any number of issues. A few scenarios that may lead to difficult conversations include:

  • Discussions relating to performance
  • Project negotiations – especially when giving or receiving feedback.
  • Situations where conflict arises between colleagues / team members
  • Budget and finance discussions

Let’s also include those difficult conversations that take place in the home between spouses or parents/children. 🙂

I have learned over time that we really can not choose to ignore or avoid the need to have difficult conversations. However, there are a few things that can help us be successful in these situations.

One key learning is that there should always be actions agreed upon at the end of any difficult conversation. This gives all parties an opportunity to move forward.

There are plenty of resources, tools and ideas available to assist with effectively managing these challenging conversations. Some of the useful information I refer to is outlined below.

The Ladder of Inference

I was first exposed to this model approximately 8 years ago as part of an emerging leader project. It’s something that subscribe to and regularly reflect on my interactions using this model to assess my own reactions and assumptions. As educators, we all need to be aware of the implications of making assumptions and forming conclusions based on our filters. This impacts our interactions with students, colleagues, leaders and parents.

Heat / Chill

People respond differently when faced with feedback, a challenge or questions about performance. Some will become angry or hostile, often raising their voice, shaking, becoming red in the face or crying. This is referred to as ‘heat’. At the other end of the scale is chill – shutting down, refusing to speak, the proverbial “nothing” when asked if something is wrong, or withdrawing into themselves. People who respond with chill often resort to email to raise concerns and address an issue. Dealing with heat or chill is critical to success in any difficult conversation.

Step 1: Acknowledge the emotion of the person. Be empathetic. Use perceptual positions to establish rapport and engage with the person. Avoid comments like ‘I know how you feel.’  Try using statements like ‘I can see you’re upset with my decision making and the way this project is running.’

Step 2: Explore what’s behind the emotion. What is causing this? Was it a past event? Something you have said? Once you understand what happened (data) and their interpretation of what happened (their assumptions) you will be in a better position to address the issues. Statements such as ‘Help me understand’ can be very helpful.

Step 3: Demonstrate your understanding. Clarify with paraphrasing with a closed question e.g. “Ok, it sound to me like you think I haven’t consulted enough with you during the early planning phase. Is that right?’

This is not a rigid process. You will most likely need to move back and forth through these steps to achieve effective outcomes.

Three Components of an Effective Conversation

  1. Treat the substantive issue as a shared problem – collaborative discussion about how to achieve desired goals
  2. Separately discuss the relation problem – understand why the person is getting emotional. The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool for this.
  3. (Re)Frame the conversation constructively – focus on purpose.



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