How To Prepare For a Difficult Conversation You Can’t Have in Person

Originally appeared at Inc.

There’s no easy way to handle a difficult conversation. Whether you’re facing a high-stakes negotiationdelivering delicate feedback, or seizing a new opportunity, the words we share can have unmistakable impact. And with so many daily interactions now forced online, the physical distance and emotional detachment can make these virtual exchanges even harder.

Delivering a well-placed message takes skill and savvy, but good communication starts with clear thinking, careful planning, and calibrated emotions. Here are four ways business owners and leaders can prepare for tough conversations with greater intention and reflection, especially when they can’t have them face to face.

Define your desired outcome.

It’s critical to define your audience and objectives up front. Spend time before the conversation reflecting on the larger context of this conversation. Are you pitching a prospective client? Asking your boss for more flexible hours? Defending an unpopular action with members of your team? Different situations demand nuanced shifts in communication, and gaining this clarity will help you convey your message with conviction.

 Be sure to engage in what psychologists call perspective-taking, or the act of broadening one’s view of people and events. Who else stands to be impacted by this conversation? Are there implications for other members of your team, customers, board members. or investors? Will the effects of this conversation ripple beyond the organization? Words take on new meaning when you’re clear about who and what is at stake. 

Anticipate what will be seen and said.

Research shows that rehearsing the steps and sequence of an action can lead to concrete improvement. Engaging in “shadow practice” before heading into a highly charged conversation can be helpful, especially when you’re not actually in front of the other person. Envision yourself in prime communication form: Calibrated voice. Measured tone. Open posture. Imagining yourself this way will help you recall and relay similar motions when it counts. 

Besides establishing presence, draw up a list of positions or arguments you expect to hear from the other person. What objections will be raised? How is he or she likely to respond to your position? Can you counter with additional evidence or arguments? Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused, even if the exchange turns tense. 

Script before you speak.

NFL coaches are known to draw up their team’s first 15 offensive plays before they take the field. If you are bracing for a particularly rough conversation, it may be helpful to play offense and script what you plan to say, especially if you’re worried about finding the right words under pressure. 

For greater impact, prepare with a WRAP approach — a four-part feedback sequence in which you state what you’re hoping to accomplish, explain your reason for raising the issue, and demonstrate how it affectsrelationships and results. End with a promptby asking the other person for his or her reactions or suggestions for next steps. Many of my clients have successfully used the WRAP approach to defuse highly charged conversations with this playbook for clear and constructive communication. 

Make sure to vent first. 

Most of all, don’t let pent up emotions get in the way of positive dialogue. Over time, these feelings slowly build until they burst, leaving us prone to error. Psychologists call this emotional leakage, and it’s the reason why so many conversations quickly fly off the rails with pain and blame.   

Find a productive outlet to vent before you talk — either with a trusted confidant or through reflective exercises like journaling. This release will help you feel more grounded and settled during the conversation and just might prevent you from saying or doing something you’ll later regret.  

While it’s certainly preferable to have tough conversations face to face, current conditions may not allow it. When you can’t meet in person, taking proactive and preventative steps can make all the difference in how your exchange plays out. And while there’s no telling how others may respond, you can be sure that success follows preparation, no matter the forum. 

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