We need to talk: How to navigate a difficult conversation

Do you need to talk with someone about a difficult situation but struggle with what to say or how to say it? Maybe you need to talk with a colleague who isn’t pulling his weight on a project? Or a direct report who constantly talks over you and interrupts you during department meetings?

By following the simple six-step process detailed below, overwhelm can be transformed into empowerment. To illustrate the power of this process, observe how the scenario between two department leaders – the Director of Engineering (E) and the Director of Marketing (M) – shifts from being challenging to becoming cooperative. 

1. State the purpose of the meeting.

E: “I’ve asked to meet with you today so we can brainstorm ideas to improve how our teams work together.”

2. State the positive intention.

E: “I know this new product launch is vitally important to you and the company; please know that the entire engineering department desperately wants and is working hard to get the new line ready for market as scheduled.”

M: “I hear your words but I don’t see much happening.”

3. Ask questions or state the issue.

E: “Currently, I’ve been feeling that the tension between our groups is becoming thick and it’s beginning to affect my morale, and the morale of my team. Is your team feeling this tension, too?” 

M: “Yes, they are … and it’s impacting me, too. If your team could just get the specs right we could still make the launch date.”

4. State the issue or ask questions.

E: “We are diligently working to isolate the root cause of the failures. Unfortunately, each test takes 24 hours. To make this easier for you, I’ve been thinking that if we could get information to you each day, versus saving it for our weekly meetings, you could make better decisions.”   

M: “That would make it a bit easier, but your team doesn’t operate with a sense of urgency.”

5. Explore solutions.

E: “Well, then let’s spend a few minutes talking about the weekly meetings.” 

M: “What’s on your mind?”

E: “It seems to me that if we could touch base for 10 minutes each day, I could share the most recent results with you.” 

M: “That would reduce my stress but it doesn’t guarantee that we will be ready by launch date.” 

E: “My goal is to improve the information flow between our departments and I think that this will move us in the right direction. I also think that we need to come up with some contingency plans. I know that we don’t want to think of them, and I hope that we won’t need to use them, but if we can’t isolate the issue soon, we will need to mobilize fast and that can only happen if we have a backup plan.”   

M: “(Big sigh). I hate to even think about that. (Long pause. Looks down at the floor.) There is so much riding on this product line that it is really hard for me to consider that it won’t launch on time. If we don’t deliver, it will be very costly for the company.” 

E: “I understand … and no one in engineering wants to miss this deadline, but we also don’t want to risk compromising the company’s reputation by rolling out a sub-par product.” 

M: “What do you have in mind?”

E: “Experience has taught me that you should always have three plans:

  1. What is the best that could happen?
  2. What is likely to happen?
  3. What is the worst that could happen?

How about if we talk through each scenario, give it a few days, and then re-evaluate what we came up with?”

M: “I really don’t want to think about that … but I understand your point.”    

E & M: (Strategy ideation discussion)

6. Define and confirm next steps.

E: “Okay, so we have three initial options … how about if I email these to you today and then let’s review them again on Friday?”

M: “Sure. I’m glad that we had this conversation. You know, I hadn’t thought about some of these options – this conversation was helpful. Thanks.”

By using this simple process, you can facilitate difficult conversations with grace and ease. With practice, the right words and questions will just flow to you. No longer will intimidation or anxiety hold you hostage.

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Christine McMahon
Christine McMahon helps leaders develop strategies and improve speed of execution by developing leadership talent, creating alignment between business functions and improving communications and accountability up, down and across a business. She is co-founder of the Leadership Institute and is in partnership with the WMEP. For keynote presentations, executive coaching, sales and leadership training, she can be reached at: ccm@christinemcmahon.com.