Keep control of difficult conversations

Dreading the drama of a crunch point conversation? These four steps will help you through conversations with difficult people

Yes. Other people behave badly sometimes. But there are constructive ways you can broach tricky subjects, minimise conflict and move beyond impasses. Here are five ways to get started.

Keep your focus on the issue

To counter other people’s digressions, interruptions and objections, plan ahead. Identify what’s most important to you. Then keep that one objective in mind throughout the conversation. Every time other people take the conversation off track, redirect back to the issue. For example, if someone says, “Why are you bringing up Project Zenith when team morale is a problem?” respond with “I’d like to focus on Project Zenith now, we can talk about team morale later”.

Manage your state

During difficult conversations, your emotions can sometimes get the better of you. And that’s dangerous because it can lead you to say something you can’t take back. With a little practise, though, you can prevent this happening. The trick is to manage your state.

First, take note of your breathing rate, heartbeat and muscle tension. These are physical cues to your emotional state. Then shift any elements of your physiology which are sending stress messages to your body. For example, slow your breathing or relax your shoulders.

Be objective

Once you’re in a calm state, choose your words carefully. Avoid language that generalises or labels (‘you’re always so untidy or you are sloppy’). That’s your emotions talking and it will only provoke the other person’s defenses. Instead focus on the situation and keep to the facts. What is the problem? How do you want it solved?

Speak from the ‘I’ position

‘I Statements’ are crucial when dealing with difficult people. Starting your message with ‘I think’, I feel’ or ‘I’m concerned’ conveys your point of view in neutral language. Speaking this way means there’s less chance other people will feel threatened or blamed. Which makes it more likely they’ll be receptive to your concerns. For example, the message “You always miss deadlines” comes across as hostile. The alternative “I’m concerned deadlines are being missed” avoids assigning blame and focuses on the problem. Learn how to structure an ‘I Statement’ in this month’s video.

Repeat and reframe

Even when you use all of the above tips, difficult people may not listen to you. Be prepared for pushback. Be ready to repeat or rephrase your message. Keep emotional language in check and remember to use ‘I statements’. Choose words such as ‘I’d like you to listen…’, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I still feel…’ This will keep your message assertive rather than aggressive.

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