When it comes to having a difficult conversation, there are countless models offering the ‘best’ way to approach – from Advocacy and Inquiry to Fierce Conversations to Radical Candor – they’re all worth checking out.

But in reality, there is no singular, “perfect” way to have them. Each difficult conversation, with each individual, in each different context is unique and will therefore require its own unique and tailored approach.

There are however 5 steps you can take to help make difficult conversations a little easier, both for you and for the other party.

1 – Be prepared, but flexible

Take the time to clearly think through the conversation.

  • Why are you having it?
  • What’s at stake?
  • What outcome are you hoping for?
  • What message or point of view do you want to convey?
  • What information, examples or experiences do you need to share in order to convey it
  • How will you convey this information? Don’t just consider the words you’ll use, think about your tone of voice and your body language as well.

As important as it is to be prepared, it’s equally as important to be flexible and allow the conversation to flow naturally. So, rather than scripting, opt for talking points and notes instead.

2 – Consider the context

The physical location and the timing of your conversation can have a huge impact on how well it’s received. Is a boardroom or coffee shop more appropriate? Perhaps a walk outside?

If you can’t have the conversation in person, still consider the timing of your video call.  Where will they be at that time and where you will be? You don’t want the message being misheard or misinterpreted because of a poor connection or background noise.

3 – Be empathetic

Their perception is their reality so always be respectful of the other party’s point of view.

Practice empathy, by putting yourself in their shoes. Consider how they might see the situation. What might they be thinking about it? How might they feel during the conversation? What does a positive outcome look like for them?

If you’re not sure, ask! Which leads me to the next tip…

4 – Be curious

Approach the conversation with an inquisitive mindset, even if you’re giving them feedback.

Instead of thinking of it as difficult conversation, a critical conversation or a courageous conversation, think of it as a curious conversation.

Use it as an opportunity to ask questions, learn more about your stakeholder/s and understand their perspectives, so you can work together to find a way forward and maintain a healthy, productive working relationship.

5 – Be open to listening

Last, but by certainly not least, choose to listen. Listen to all the signals – not just their words. Listen to their tone of voice and their body language.

Show them that you are listening with your own body language and verbal cues.

Listening to the other person gives you the opportunity to learn more about them and their perspective; it allows you to identify any misunderstandings and clarify where necessary.

Importantly, it shows that you’re interested in collaborating with them to find a win:win solution, maintain a positive working relationship and perhaps even come out the other side stronger and more connected than you were before.