When we choose to label a conversation as difficult, we are using a word which has powerful negative connotations. This sets a distinct tone for how we think about and prepare for that conversation – we are on edge, nervous and worried about it. It makes us defensive before the conversation has even begun.

That’s why in her latest post, Heather Campbell breaks down the idea of difficult conversations to help leaders reframe their approach and tackle them in a far more constructive, productive way.

“Cards on the table – sometimes I can be a real pain.”

My colleagues will tell you I’m a pain for many reasons, but in this blog, I want to talk about one reason in particular. I can be a real pain in restaurants because I insist on giving feedback when I’m unhappy with the quality of the meal or service. Now, many of my friends would simply smile and say ‘everything is lovely, thanks’, when the opposite is true. Giving negative feedback is something many people find incredibly awkward, and would rather avoid and suffer in silence. Saying we’re not happy comes under the umbrella of difficult conversations.

For me, there is no such thing as a difficult conversation. They aren’t an ‘objective reality’ – a conversation that one person finds challenging, someone else may find quite natural and straightforward.

Why difficult conversations matter 

Leaders are faced with many types of difficult conversation – telling the boss the budget’s been overspent, giving feedback to underperforming employees or challenging the views of more senior colleagues are all examples I am very familiar with through my work coaching senior leaders and executives.

The ability to have these types of conversation is a key leadership differentiator. Open, honest conversations bring you closer to the coal face, and to the real problems that are holding your team or organisation back. If you have a culture where people are not afraid to have these types of conversations, problems can be solved faster, and growth will happen more quickly as a result.

Ditch the label

Instead of automatically labelling these types of conversation as difficult, get specific about what it is that you personally find challenging. Getting clear and specific about the challenge for you will make it easier to figure out how to manage this.

What’s your challenge?

The challenge will boil down to one of three things.

1. The topic

From talking about big-picture issues such as why an unpopular change like restructuring or redundancies is necessary, to more granular issues such as broaching underperformance, inappropriate behaviour or pay, certain topics can be tricky to discuss. One leader I coached recently was agonising over telling a member of his sales team that he suffered from halitosis and this had given rise to customer complaints. Of course, this isn’t a topic anyone would want to tackle, but the more he focussed on the difficulty, the bigger that difficulty became.

2. The person

It may be that the person you need to have the conversation behaves in a way that you find challenging. They may have a terse, direct style of communication which you find disrespectful or worse, arrogant. Or, they may have a reputation for emotional outbursts during these types of conversation, which you may find hard to handle. And it might even be that they remind you of someone else you’ve had problems with and – through no fault of their own – you respond negatively to them as a result.

3. The situation

Sometimes it’s not the topic or the person that you find challenging, but the situation you find yourself in. For example, you may work in an open plan office where it’s hard to speak to someone without everyone else overhearing. Or maybe, following a promotion, you now have to have conversations as someone’s boss when you used to chat as peers. 

Unpicking exactly what it is you find challenging will help you get really specific about the root cause, and more importantly, what specifically you fear about this. This self-awareness will help you plan how to manage the fear. 

Manage your fear

Armed with this information about your mindset, you can start to plan the conversation you need to have, and frame it from a position of knowledge and self-awareness, rather than the vague sense of ‘difficult’.

  • Afraid the topic will cause offence? Focus on being clear, direct and empathetic.
  • Find the person cries easily? Accept that tears don’t hurt you and can actually bring relief for the other person.
  • Worried a former peer won’t like you speaking to them as their boss? Acknowledge the situation you both find yourselves in and that it feels strange to have these different roles

Whatever your fear, there will be a way to manage it, so get specific. On the other hand, ‘difficult’ conversations are simply too vague to help you handle them with confidence.

Why there’s no such thing as a difficult conversation