Avoiding difficult conversations will only allow the underlying problems to fester, writes Alec Grimsley

Whether it’s tackling poor performance, delivering bad news, giving your boss some critical feedback or raising a sensitive issue with a colleague, there are plenty of conversations most of us would like to avoid when we can, and stumble through when we have to. We can spend hours, days or even weeks worrying about what we are going to say. Then, once we’ve finally gone through with it, we dwell on what we should have said and what went wrong.

It is no wonder we put off these difficult conversations. They usually contain a dizzying cocktail of high stakes, differing opinions, historic baggage and strong emotions. There is also one other factor that magnifies the rest: uncertainty.

It’s nearly impossible to predict where these conversations might end up, so we often imagine the conversation going horribly wrong. We worry about hurting the other person’s feelings - what if they cry or get defensive? Often, we decide it is probably better not to raise it at all, so we either put it off or avoid it completely.

Unfortunately, delaying the conversation usually just makes the situation worse.

Although no one conversation is ever guaranteed to positively change the trajectory of a working relationship, project or team, any one conversation can. Sadly, because many managers avoid these difficult yet vital conversations, they and the organisation often pay a heavy price, including:

  • procrastinating managers allow problems to reach crisis point, prompting reflexive, inappropriate handling that leads to costly legal challenges, such as accusations of bullying and wrongful dismissal;
  • bad decisions that are left unchallenged lead to derailed, delayed or over budget projects;
  • staff and middle management are too afraid to raise serious concerns until incidents around patient care force the issue and failings into the public realm;
  • as a manager you can feel frustrated, disempowered and isolated if you don’t talk about issues that are worrying you.

But these conversations need not spiral into disasters. You can approach those difficult moments more successfully by taking a few preparatory steps.

Which conversations are the most vital?

Take 20 minutes to reflect on the people in your team or organisation who you need to have a difficult yet vital conversation with. This activity should be as important to you as your business planning. Achieving your work goals will probably involve some difficult conversations, so get focused on the ones you must have.

Write out the long term consequences of not having that vital conversation and weigh those up against the consequences of having it. Most of your short term reasons for not having it will be related to feelings of uncertainty and nerves about raising the issue. Facing up to the often quite serious long term consequences of avoidance will motivate you to take action.

Get to the nub of the issue

Be clear about the issue you wish to raise and state this issue within a minute of starting the conversation. Practice the first minute several times by writing it out and rehearsing it. This will make sure you address the nub of the issue from the start.

Remember, you don’t have the monopoly on being right, in fact mentally drop the “I’m right” stance and instead be curious by asking yourself “how are we seeing this differently”. People become more open when they feel that you genuinely care about their perspectives. Go for authentic listening rather than attentive listening, which can come across as fake.

Avoid land mine language

Inflammatory language is unlikely to help resolve an issue. So instead of saying “that wasn’t professional” (which creates defensiveness) try: “I found your approach to this situation unusual and it concerned me as it did not meet my expectations around X and Y.”

If you have many issues to discuss only talk about one or two and leave the rest for later.

There are no easy difficult conversations

At the end of the conversation don’t fool yourself that either party will be happy. Instead, aim for being respected for the way you handled it.