The key to having better difficult conversations – say less, not more

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If you’re an entrepreneur, business owner, or people manager, there’s a high chance you’re currently avoiding having a ‘difficult conversation.’ 

Having worked with many managers on preparing for difficult conversations, most will delay discussing a hard topic until it becomes unbearable, often hoping the issue will go away on its own. When that doesn’t work, they’ll often prepare for the difficult conversation they hope to have by rehearsing a ‘script’.  Many of us have been taught the difficult conversation technique of- starting by saying something nice, then following up with the hard message, and wrapping up by saying something nice.  What this approach has taught us however, is to be skeptical when someone pays us a compliment. 

If you want to break out of the dreaded difficult conversation cycle, the real ‘trick’ is to say less, not more. The most powerful difficult conversations are when you get the other person to say the thing you want to tell them. Imagine a difficult conversation so skillful that rather than telling your teammate they need to stop being late with deliverables, you create a space where the other person acknowledges first that they’re never finishing their work on time.

In order to master the art of this, we need to first think about changing the traditional approach to difficult conversations. Here are a few strategies that will help you to say less while getting more out of your difficult conversations:

1) Rather than preparing a script in your mind, focus instead on crafting a neutral opening statement. A neutral opening statement should be no more than one or two sentences that let the other person know exactly what you’re there to discuss without making them feel attacked. Great opening statements are concise, clear, and direct.  This will help you avoid a long-winded opening ramble that we see so many managers prepare ahead of a difficult conversation. You will use this statement to open your conversation and allow the other person to respond.

2) Start by gathering, not giving information. If we initiate a difficult conversation, there’s typically a lot on our mind we want to share. You’ll be in a much better position if after you deliver your opening statement, you start by listening and asking questions. The other person likely has an entirely different perspective on the situation, and the more you can understand where they land on the issue, the more powerful your messaging can be later. In order togather great information, ask open-ended questions and listen.  Then listen some more. 

3) Don’t underestimate the power of silence.  Most people feel uncomfortable or dread an awkward silence in a conversation, but silence can be a really powerful tool to deepen the conversation. If you feel surprised by something the other person said, or they aren’t sharing a lot but you want to know their perspective, feel free to sit in a moment of silence. The other person will likely feel just as uncomfortable and start speaking. This is often when the best information is usually revealed. 

Being mindful and applying the techniques listed above will help you to be more skillful in your difficult conversations and ultimately, more likely to achieve a successful outcome. Next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, remember that saying less is going to get you a lot more. 

Amanda Hudson is the founder of A Modern Way to Work, an HR consultancy and antidote to outdated HR that delivers forward-thinking recruitment services, manager training and fractional HR. They also created the Difficult Conversations Card Deck, a leadership tool for navigating tough conversations with ease.

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