Prepare for difficult conversations

Bring a high-touch approach to high stakes encounters.

You’re about to have a difficult conversation with your boss, colleague or loved one. Are you ready?

Succeeding at high-stakes communication takes skill and savvy, but it also requires a plan of action — an intentional effort to understand what others need and how to meet and manage their expectations.

With the right amount of planning and preparation, it’s possible to engage others with greater calm and control. Using some behavioral science and a bit of common sense, you can take charge of these delicate conversation before they happen.

Define your desired outcome.

It’s critical to define your goals and objectives up front. Spend time before the conversation getting clear about your larger purpose: Are you sharing critical feedback? Asking your boss for more flexible hours? Defending an unpopular decision with members of your team? Different situations demand nuanced shifts in communication, and gaining this clarity will help you convey your message with conviction.

To do that, try seeing things from another person’s view. This act of perspective taking has been shown to produce numerous benefits, including increased altruismdecreased stereotyping, and stronger social bonds

To widen your view of others, ask yourself:

  • How is this person likely to respond?
  • Who else will be impacted by this conversation?
  • What would others say or do if they knew about this?

Words take on new meaning when you’re clear about who and what is at stake. 

Anticipate what will be seen and said.

Mental preparation helps, too. Brain scans show that people use the same neural networks whether they are actually moving or simply thinking about movement. And there’s research that suggests that merely rehearsing the steps and sequences of an action can lead to concrete improvement — all the more reason to think through these conversations ahead of time.

Before entering into a highly charged conversation, try engaging in shadow practice. Imagine you’re in the moment. What are you saying and doing? How do you look and sound? Does your message seem to be landing strong or falling flat?

Envision yourself in prime communication form:

  • Voice: Is it calm and steady?
  • Tone: Are you using direct and casual language?
  • Body language: Do you have an open and inviting posture?

Besides establishing your presence, plan for contingencies. Draw up a list of talking points and positions you’re likely to encounter from the other side:

  • What objections will be raised?
  • What evidence will be shared?
  • What experiences or expectations will they bring to the table?

Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused, even if the exchange turns tense. Shadow practice isn’t real, but its effects are.

Script before you speak.

NFL coaches draw up their team’s first 15 offensive plays before they take the field. They don’t leave their opening moves to chance. 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 candor and clarity, try a feedback WRAP. This four-step framework can help you address issues without dodging or disguising important details and can lead to more collaborative conversations.

Make sure to vent first.

Don’t let pent-up emotions get in the way of positive dialogue. Over time, these tense feelings bubble up until they burst, spilling all over our words and actions. Psychologists call this emotional leakage, and it’s the reason why so many conversations quickly fly off the rails with pain and blame.  

You can contain the damage by finding a productive outlet to vent: Talk things through with a trusted colleague or loved one. Put your thoughts to paper by journaling or through some other reflective exercise. The release will help you feel more grounded and clear-minded during the conversation, and might just prevent you from saying or doing something you’ll later come to regret.

We can’t guarantee how others will take to our words, but having a proactive communication plan can improve our odds of success. By clarifying our goals, anticipating our moves, scripting our message and broadening our perspective, we can raise the prospects for healthier dynamics and more constructive conversation.

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