Difficult conversations — those interactions that keep us up at night— are a common challenge for many managers. Most of us would love to learn how to approach tough interactions without getting stressed out, losing sleep, or endlessly rehearsing what-ifs.
Fortunately, this is achievable for almost anyone; getting there just takes a little effort and practice. And it starts by tuning your own frame of mind well before the meeting.
Here are five steps you should take in preparing for any sensitive discussion.
1. Reframe It
To begin with, just by calling a conversation “difficult”, we are framing things in a negative light and getting off on the wrong foot. Try defining the situation in a more constructive way.
For example, if you’re providing feedback to a poor performer, you can approach the meeting as a chance to support your employee in a meaningful way and strengthen your management skills. If you’re delivering bad news to your team, you can be the one to provide much-needed calm and guidance, and reinforce your identity as a leader.
It might be hard to see what the positive value is at first, but make a practice of finding and focusing on that value before engaging in the discussion.
2. Don’t Try to Predict the Future
When dealing with an unknown, many people tend to visualize the worst possible outcome. This makes sense: we have evolved to anticipate threats. But there’s always the possibility that the person you’re dealing with will react differently than you expect.
How often have you stayed awake at night rehearsing what you’re going to say, only to have the conversation take an entirely different direction? You really don’t always know what will happen. Spinning your wheels worrying about every possible “what-if” just elevates your stress and accomplishes very little.
3. Keep Your Perspective
When you’re dreading an interaction, if often feels like the stakes are incredibly high. In reality, if a conversation goes wrong at work, it may be unpleasant or have a result you’re not happy with, but very probably your friends will not stop loving you, you won’t end up living under a bridge, and your world will not come to an end.
When one is in a state of anticipatory stress one tends to lose sight of the bigger picture. It doesn’t hurt to remind yourself to maintain perspective and leave the worst-case scenarios behind.
When you breathe deeply, you’re communicating a message to your brain to calm down and relax. Then your brain helpfully tells your body to slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your cortisal (stress hormone) levels.
By taking a few deep breaths, you can bring yourself back to a state of physical and mental calm.
5. Practice Makes Perfect
One of my clients recently said to me, “Hey, yesterday, I had to deliver a performance improvement plan, and it went great. Everyone understood what needed to happen, and we’re all moving forward. I’ve done a bunch of these over the years, and I just don’t stress out about them any more.” My client felt great that she could handle what used to keep her up at night.
Nobody dreams of firing somebody, telling their boss that a milestone may slip, or giving a poor performance review. But the more you learn to handle these conversations, the easier they get, and the less time and energy you spend worrying about them.
Want to speed up that process? Don’t hide from these discussions. Accept that they’re a part of work life, prepare well for them, and learn what you can from them. Over time, you’ll be removing the word “difficult” from your vocabulary.
Don’t fall into the trap of simply girding for the worst. Reframe the situation, don’t spend time worrying about what-ifs, remember to breathe, and embrace the opportunity to practice. You will survive. And you might even become a better manager (and person) in the process.
About the Author
Jennine Heller is the founder of J Heller Coaching, a no-nonsense executive coaching firm for leaders in tech and finance.