To build positive long-term relationships, you often have to start with how to navigate ‘difficult conversations’! Some people want to run away, hide and hope it will go away, others go on the offensive and tackle things head on, often pushing their view with scant regard for the other person. These are both natural responses to a potential threat, tapping right into our ‘flight or fight’ mechanism…but the chances are that neither response will lead to the best outcome.
So, based on my experiences in coaching people and in mediating when relationships have broken down, here are my top tips – the 4 P’s…
1. Prevention. As we know, prevention is better than cure… and in relationship terms, it is helpful to invest some time to check-in with people, to ask ‘how is this going for you?’, ‘what’s working well?’, ‘what’s not working well?’, ‘how can we make things better?’. This sets the relationship up as a collaboration and enables both parties to make positive suggestions for change early – before they become a problem.
2. Perspective. Difficulties in relationships often arise from misunderstanding. If we’re feeling a bit vulnerable, we may project negative intent on to someone else. For example, they might make a throw away comment about us being a bit late, and we quickly feel undermined and think they are out to get us… So, before you launch into a conversation, step back. What’s really going on here? What is their intention? Why do you think that? What else might be going on? Is this part of a trend or a one-off? Is it something that you really want to address?
3. Purpose. If you decide that you do need a conversation, then it’s helpful to be really clear with yourself about what you want to achieve. What does a good result look like? Is it about you feeling heard? Is it about you wanting them to feel repentant? Do you want a change in behaviour or some sort of retribution? Having thought about your purpose, it’s important to get in the other person’s shoes… what might be going on for them? What might their purpose be? Then there’s a really difficult question to ask ourselves. How open minded am I about this? How flexible am I to really explore their views and to take on a different perspective? If you’re not open, then be honest with yourself!
4. Planning. So, it’s nearly time to get into the conversation, how can you do it? planning in advance helps you to approach the conversation in a more mature and respectful way – it helps to take some of the emotion out of it. There’s a great structure I use for these conversations – in all situations, from encouraging teenagers to tidy bedrooms, to disappointing service to high stakes work conversations. It takes time to develop your own rhythm and language, but the basic structure has 3 parts:
a. What’s going on – for the other person and for you (for example, ‘I can see that you’re really busy at the moment, but I’ve been sat here for 30 minutes and don’t yet have a drink’)
b. Your aims – what you want and don’t want (for example, ‘what I want is a realistic time for being served with our drinks and our meal. What I don’t want is to be told it will be 15 minutes and to still be waiting in 30’)
c. The consequence – what will happen if they do this, and if they don’t (for example, ‘if you can give us a realistic time, we will be able to make a choice to stay or to go elsewhere. If you over-promise on times, then we will be very disappointed and that will influence what we say about your service’)
This approach gives you a great way to share your thoughts and feelings. But in lots of situations this is only half of the story – the next bit is about hearing their perspective – so asking them what’s really going on for them, what their aims are and what the consequences are. You can then jointly plan what to do next.