3 Tips for Managing Difficult Conversations

What happens when strong feelings, divergent goals, incompatible communication styles, and unclear expectations collide? Conflict. The word alone might fill you with dread — but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Conflict is a natural occurrence in any relationship, and, when handled effectively, it can lead to positive growth. Learning to manage, instead of avoiding, the difficult conversations that come along with conflict has the power to strengthen your relationships and promote win-win problem-solving. Leading the way through conflict can be one of the most valuable things you do for your team, and it all starts with reframing the way you choose to manage difficult conversations.

#1: Adjust your mindset

Most people tend to enter into a difficult conversation running a little hot. Strong emotions combined with diverse needs, wants, and perceptions will create tension every time, especially when the stakes are high. But what if you could reframe this difficult conversation as a normal conversation between two people who have simple different perspectives?

Adjusting your mindset from “difficult conversation” to “collaborative problem-solving” cuts the tension and apprehension. It simply becomes an opportunity to understand the other person’s views and beliefs, and for you to share yours. Eliminating pre-judgement can reduce stress and lead to a better outcome for everyone involved.

#2: Establish a safe environment

We can all understand the discomfort associated with conflict. Some people respond aggressively, while others may experience anxiety or shyness when confronted with tough conversations. With this in mind, it’s advisable to establish a safe environment for everyone involved. An unsafe, uncomfortable environment creates negativity, leading to unproductive conflict and the inability to compromise.

One of your key responsibilities as a leader is to create and model a safe environment that fosters the freedom to share thoughts and ideas without condemnation or retribution. It promotes collaborative discussions and encourages each person to develop and grow as an individual. Lay the foundation by setting mutually agreed-upon ground rules to prevent disruptive behavior like personal attacks and name-calling. Work to ensure that everyone involved has the chance to speak freely and truthfully.

#3: Lead by listening

Conflict can make us vulnerable, and that can be scary. Taking the next step by really leaning into vulnerability may be even scarier, but it’s the best path through conflict. When you focus on listening first and remaining open to constructive criticism without taking it personally, you create the kind of open, honest culture that boosts engagement and collaboration. 

Listen to the other party as much as, if not more than, you share your own perspective. Clarify the disagreement and get to the root cause. From there, ask questions and encourage dialogue that helps establish a common goal, the ways to achieve it, and a mutually acceptable resolution.

Powerful question: Think of an example of a recent difficult conversation you were involved in. What impact did your prejudgment of the conversation have? How do you think you might handle that situation differently now?

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