Here’s the situation. You have something you need to say, and you dread having to say it. This could happen under a variety of circumstances:
- You need to give some negative feedback to a colleague or employee.
- You have to deliver a disappointing message to a client, teammate, or manager.
- You have a big presentation, a job interview, etc.
- You need to share something important (and difficult) with a loved one.
- …and this list could go on for quite a while.
In situations like these, it’s easy to work yourself into an emotional turmoil before the conversation even happens. However, what if you could self-manage so that you enter the interaction feeling composed, or even happy? Wouldn’t your chances of having a good outcome be much better?
Here are a few strategies I use to prepare for difficult interactions.
1. Decide to Do It
Sometimes, we perseverate so long, asking ourselves, “Should I tell so-and-so about this thing?” The answer is almost always yes. Or we tell ourselves that we just need the perfect opportunity to share the bad news or give the difficult feedback. However, the perfect opportunity never comes. Usually, this waiting results in a blowup where the situation reaches a breaking point, which sadly, could have been avoided with a conversation much earlier.
Decide to have the conversation, and set a date and time. Sometimes, this means inviting the other person to a meeting. It may also mean setting the appointment with yourself—and then fulfilling it.
Also, it’s important to note that when delivering difficult news or feedback, or any interaction where the outcome is important to you, it should happen in person, or if it’s long distance, use the phone or video conferencing. Do NOT hide behind e-mail or texting.
2. Find the Goal
Once you’ve set the appointment, think about your goals for the interaction. What is the message that you want to communicate? Is it a behavior change that’s needed? A decision that you need the other party to make? Maybe you’re sharing some difficult information—in that case, you may not need a specific action from the other person, but what do you want them to feel as they leave the conversation? Thinking about the outcome that you want can help you figure out what to say (and what not to say).
3. Plan and Rehearse Your Message
When you’ve found your goals, it’s time to craft your message. Having a plan for your conversation before it happens will help keep you calm as you get started and direct the conversation where you want it to go. Think very carefully about what you want to say. Think about how your message supports your goal. Of course, be truthful. Look for ways to frame your message that support your goals, instead of undermining them. Sometimes, I find it helpful to write out my script for at least the opening of the conversation.
After figuring out what you want to say, it can be very helpful to go to a quiet room and say it out loud to yourself a few times. Or if that makes you feel funny, say it in your head. Soon, you will begin to feel comfortable with your message. You might want to tweak it a bit, if you find parts that are awkward to say or don’t really come out the way you want them to. This practice can make you sound and feel polished and calm during the real interaction.
4. Allow Yourself an Out
Think about what you will do if the conversation goes off track. For example, if you’re facilitating a big meeting, maybe you would want to take control of the room and call for a quick break to let people gather their thoughts.
If it’s a one-on-one interaction and you expect you might receive some tough questions or criticism, you could plan not to respond right away—give yourself permission to defer, by responding with an answer such as, “I’m not sure about that. Let me look at the data and think about it more, and get back to you tomorrow.”
If it’s a personal interaction, maybe you need to give yourself permission to take a break from the conversation if things get difficult. Whatever situation you find yourself in, having an out already prepared can help you avoid feeling trapped and put on the spot.
5. Consider the Worst and the Best That Could Happen
Considering the worst outcome can be counterintuitive, but I find it’s a helpful thought exercise to ask myself two questions:
- What will happen if this interaction goes poorly?
- Will the outcome of this interaction matter five years from now?
These questions help me keep things in perspective.
The first question prompts me to think about what recourse I might take if I don’t reach my goals for the conversation. Having a plan for that helps me stay calm and focused on achieving my desired outcome. The second question usually helps me realize that the potential consequences of a poor outcome aren’t really very severe in the big picture. There are very few single interactions that on their own could have an effect on my life lasting five years into the future. This helps take the pressure out of the situation.
Next, I put those thoughts away and I think about the best positive outcome. I imagine achieving my goals for the interaction. I take a few deep breaths as I think about it, and I do my best to move forward as if this outcome is my reality. I walk into the conversation with this sense of positivity and relief nestled in my gut.
6. Go Do It
Now you’re prepared and ready. Approach your difficult interaction with calm confidence and positivity.
I’ve picked some of these strategies via personal trial and error, and others came from various resources on mindfulness and interacting with others. For further reading on the topic, a great starting point is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High. This book is required reading for all new Atomic Object employees. I would welcome your recommendations for additional resources to check out!