7 Strategies for Tough Conversations

By January 26, 2016Leadership

benefits of tough conversation

I’m not a big fan of going to the doctor.

The last few times I’ve gotten sick, it has not been easy to get into see my physician. Since my wife recently started seeing a new doctor, she recommended I give him a shot when I picked up something this week.

After the first visit, I texted her, “Just made the switch!”

None of his professional credentials caused me to switch. I made a change because I experienced his genuine concern for me. I noticed his memory of our family dynamics. I appreciated the way he looked me in the eye when he talked to me. I noted how he asked good questions and then actually listened for my responses.

Going to the doctor isn’t the most fun experience in the world, especially when it’s a new one. Talking with someone you don’t know about personal matters can be really uncomfortable. But my new doctor made what could have been a tough conversation so much easier by how he engaged me.

I believe nearly everything we want in a relationship is on the other side of a tough conversation. I also believe tough conversations can be incredible catalysts for our growth and the success of the teams we lead.

In a previous post, I shared 7 benefits of tough conversations. I ended 2015 with some tough conversations which proved to be helpful and important. While I was reminded of the benefits of tough conversations from that experience, I also learned the importance of the right tactics.

Ensuring Everyone Wins During Tough Conversations

These 7 tactics equip us to navigate and leverage tough conversations to be wins for us and the other people in the room.

1) Prepare well

We often think of preparing intentionally and intensely for a presentation in front of a group. Whether it’s a keynote, a quarterly report, a sales pitch or a sermon, we give careful attention to our content, non-verbal gestures, and slide deck. As a speaker, I’ll spend countless hours prepping a talk. However, we ought to prepare just as intentionally for a tough conversation with a member of our team. When we haphazardly prepare for these conversations, the results reflect the amount of preparation.

2) Listen intentionally

How often do you enter a tough conversation more focused on what the other person is going to say than on what you’re going to say? When other people are talking, we find ourselves preparing our reply and not actually listening and engaged. We communicate value to other people when we give them our full attention and actually hear them.

3) Watch body language

During tough conversations, we communicate as much if not more with our body than we do with our words. Crossing arms, breaking eye contact, checking your mobile phone or the clock – all of these speak louder than words to the person with whom you’re speaking. Also, don’t just pay attention to your body language – watch their’s. You may learn more from posture and other cues than you do from words. In a recent conversation, I began probing someone who began pulling away from me with their body in the conversation. I felt like they were disengaging and retreating from the subject at hand.

4) Repeat and clarify

Tough conversations amp up our emotions, which often clouds our ability to hear and interpret information. The importance of repeating information and clarifying our statements cannot be overstated. If you’re unclear or confused by something someone else said, ask them to clarify their perspective. If you feel like they’re not understanding you, repeat your point in a different way. In public speaking, I’m regularly reminded of the value of distilling a presentation down to one central point. It’s important to focus our tough conversations down to one message we can keep coming back to consistently.

5) Follow-up

As leaders, we often enter tough conversations because expectations are being unmet and change has become necessary. Giving someone this kind of feedback is not a one-time experience. We need to follow up and affirm the other person. Remind them of how much you value them and the relationship you share. If you discuss performance with the people you lead one time per year, you’re failing to adequately support, develop and lead them. Following up on a tough conversation can often lead to progress that wasn’t possible in the initial dialogue.

6) Follow-thru

If you told someone you’re going to do something, do it! Trust is gained when over time we show someone else consistent performance. Trust is the currency we cash in when we need to have a tough conversation. When we follow thru on the promises we make, we gain credibility and the content of our tough conversation is taken more seriously. If you’re going to challenge someone to meet expectations in a new way, then you need to as well.

7) Surrender the outcome

In my limited experience leading teams and being led by others, tough conversations rarely go as planned. Intentions and words are misinterpreted, over-reactions take place, and little things are blown up to much bigger than necessary. Communication is an art and in certain contexts, it’s a miracle. Before you enter a tough conversation, prepare well and plan your strategy. The last thing you should do is surrender the outcome. You’re going to do your best to communicate well. But even the best attempt to do the previous six things can lead to an undesired outcome.

Tough conversations are worth having, even if they don’t go well. They communicate powerfully to those involved and those who are watching. Great leaders are known as courageous and loving to those they lead. One of the most compassionate things you can do as a leader is to walk into someone’s office, close the door and say, “We need to talk.”

Scott Savage
Scott is a writer and a pastor. He leads Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona. He’s married to Dani and the father of Wes, Shay and Max. You can get a free copy of his latest ebook, Forgiveness: From Myth to Reality, at www.scottsavagelive.com.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • […] be surprised by this answer. But fear has  kept me from speaking up (and sometimes still does). Tough conversations are where fear is most paralyzing in my life. It is a constant challenge to push past that […]

  • […] earlier this year for my friends at ThinDifference.com about the power of tough conversations. Both posts resonated with their audience. Almost all of us have tough conversations we’re avoiding. […]

  • Al says:

    I totally agree with your comments……
    “I made a change because I experienced his genuine concern for me.”
    “I appreciated the way he looked me in the eye when he talked to me. I noted how he asked good questions and then actually listened for my responses”.
    In my blogs and training I emphasize the importance of being there for the prospect. It is only when a salesperson asks strong questions and sees the prospects world through their own eyes can they make recommendations to solve the prospects issues.
    Salespeople need to see themselves more as business physicians.

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