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11 Keys to Mastering Difficult Conversations

I'm asked about this all the time. These 11 tips work.

Jack Frog/Shutterstock
Source: Jack Frog/Shutterstock

As a happiness and workplace well-being researcher, I hear these questions all the time: What's the best way to master difficult conversations? How can we give feedback with a good outcome?

After all, such talks are inevitable, at home and at work. I've written a number of articles on the topic; here is a summary of that work, including great advice from my colleague Kim Cameron, author of the highly informative book Positive Leadership:

1. Deliver more positive than negative feedback.

High-performing organizations deliver roughly five times as many positive statements (supportive, appreciative, encouraging) as negative ones (critical, disapproving, contradictory). This is because bad is stronger than good; our brains focus on negative feedback more than positive feedback. (You know this if you’ve ever had one bad conversation ruin your whole day.) Positive communication correlates with much higher worker engagement, our research suggests. You can correct your employees, even criticize or confront them, but you want to do so in a positive context. That is when you will see the best results and maintain morale and engagement.

2. Focus on communicating the other person’s strengths, unique contributions, and best-self demonstrations.

Traditionally, we tend to focus on giving employees critical feedback. However, by focusing on their weaknesses, we only create competence. By focusing on their strengths, we create excellence. Be as specific about positive feedback as you are about negative feedback. We usually gloss over the strengths, mentioning them briefly, but then focus in much greater detail on the critical feedback. Remember to add examples and details to your positive feedback.

3. Emphasize collaboration and commonalities.

Try to stay objective when you speak about a negative event. Describe the problematic situation, rather than evaluating it; identify objective consequences or your personal feelings associated with it, rather than placing blame); and suggest acceptable alternatives, rather than arguing about who is right or at fault.

4. Be aware of your facial expression.

We deduce how someone is helping from their facial expression. Someone’s smile activates the smile muscles in your own face, while their frown activates your frown muscles, according to research by Ulf Dimberg. We internally register what another person is feeling by experiencing it in our own body. Smiling is so important to social interactions that we can discern whether someone is smiling even if we can’t see them. Your smile is thus something to think about even if you are delivering feedback over the phone. Smile appropriately to project warmth and goodwill.

5. Maintain eye contact.

Eyes really are the windows to the soul: You can predictably determine someone’s emotions from their gaze. Eye contact is the crucial first step for resonance, or a person’s ability to read someone else’s emotions. It’s also important for creating a feeling of connection. Make and maintain eye contact when you’re giving someone feedback.

6. Control your voice.

From infancy, we are acutely aware of the voices of people we consider important, and the way we feel about another person shifts the way we speak. The tone of our voice, more than the words themselves, can give away how we feel. In fact, new research shows that we can often predict someone’s emotions from their voice.

7. Take an easy posture.

The way a person sits—slumped or sitting tall, arms open or crossed—transmits a message. When we walk into a room and find someone sitting with their arms crossed, we feel less connected to them. Having your chest open, arms uncrossed, making sure to keep nodding, smiling, and vocalizing (saying things like “mm-hmm” and “yes”) will help. Make sure you take on a non-dominant stance. Your role is already powerful; the best way for the other party to hear you is if you are not domineering.

8. Breathe.

Research shows that the emotions we feel change the way that we breathe. You have probably noticed that when you’re stressed or angry you breathe quickly and shallowly, and when tired or exasperated, you are more likely to sigh. Similarly, when we are with someone who sighs a lot, we may feel that they are annoyed at us. Before your conversation, try to take some deep, calming breaths. When you exhale, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, so focus on breathing out longer than you breathe in. Doing this for a couple of minutes before a meeting will help you start from a place of calm. That calmness will also help your interlocutor feel more at ease.

9. Pay attention.

Our mind wanders 50 percent of the time, research suggests. Moreover, given our busy schedules and the messages and emails that pop onto our screens all day, we are sometimes not present with the people in front of us: We’re still processing something that happened earlier, or thinking about an article we just read or a call we just had. The people you are talking to can tell. When you are not fully present, you are less likely to hear them and respond skillfully, let alone understand where they are coming from.

10. Be authentic.

Even if you follow all of the other tips listed here, it’s critical that you be authentic, or all of your efforts will backfire. Just think of how you feel when you’re around someone who seems to be something they are not: We often walk away feeling uncomfortable or manipulated—and our blood pressure rises in the face of inauthenticity, according to research by James Gross at Stanford.

11. Show compassion.

Rather than seeing the feedback situation as “work” or something you need to get through, see the conversation as an opportunity to connect with another person who has their own needs and pain. Everyone, at some point, goes through tough times, sad times, painful times. By remembering the human experiences we all share, you will find that you are able to bring kindness and compassion into the conversation. If you are giving feedback, you will probe into what has prompted your employee to act a certain way, and you will find the right words to encourage a different type of behavior. Research shows that employees feel greater loyalty and are inspired to work harder for managers who are compassionate and kind.

For more on happiness and happiness at work, check out my book The Happiness Track.

Compiled from prior articles I wrote on Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

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