Episode 18 - How to have difficult conversations

In this podcast Sophie Paton-McDermott, a partner at Make Happy, explains how to approach and conduct difficult conversations.

In this podcast Sophie Paton-McDermott, a partner at Make Happy, explains how to approach and conduct difficult conversations. She argues that being skilled at having difficult conversations can make you more effective and advises being strategic about the conversations you have. Sophie says it’s important not to put off tricky conversations and describes how reframing a conversation in your mind, as well as using breathing techniques, can help you cope. She says it’s natural to become defensive and/or emotional and advises naming emotions to achieve a constructive conversation. Sophie argues the best conversations happen in person when the timing is right.


RJ: Today I'm speaking to Sophie Paton-McDermott, who is a partner at an organisation called Make Happy. We're going to be talking about difficult conversations, something I'm sure our audience will have encountered at some stage in their career. Welcome, Sophie. Perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your organisation.

SPM: Hi there. As you say, I work for a company called Make Happy. I'm myself a facilitator and a mediator. At Make Happy we work with all different kinds of organisations to help teams and groups communicate better with each other [and] collaborate better by using training and workshops to really create safe spaces for that to happen.

RJ: That sounds really interesting. We're talking today about difficult conversations. What do you mean by a difficult conversation?

SPM: For me, when I think of difficult conversations, I'm really talking about a conversation you feel nervous about having, that you're really dreading, that maybe you put off. Something that you feel is going to be very uncomfortable to talk about.

When we do training in this area, one [example] that comes up a lot is asking your boss for a salary raise, for example, or giving or receiving negative feedback perhaps, or raising an issue that's happening on the team that you think needs [to be] addressed. I would class all those as difficult conversations.

RJ: Yes, and perhaps things that feel familiar to the audience. Should we be having these difficult conversations? Or should we just be avoiding them?

SPM: I definitely wouldn't recommend you go out seeking conflict and looking for issues to raise all the time. But definitely I think difficult conversations are a part of working life, they are going to come up again and again. If you can be skilled in this area, that's going to help you resolve conflicts, keep and maintain healthy relationships with the people that you work with and help you move projects forward.

Certainly, if you're a manager, or if you aspire to become a manager, then having tricky and uncomfortable conversations is an essential part of that job. You might have to give someone negative feedback, you might have to say, ‘I'm really sorry, you're not getting that promotion,’ you might even have to make someone redundant. To be able to have these difficult conversations is really important.

I also think if you avoid all uncomfortable conversations, which to be honest lots of us do, it can lead to issues that are happening within the team, within the organisation, not being raised, and then they go unchecked. Or your own frustration building to the point that it affects your wellbeing and your ability to perform effectively in your job.

RJ: Yeah, absolutely. So, where's the balance? How do you decide which conversations are worth having and which we should let go?

SPM: It's a really interesting question. I don't think there are any hard and fast rules to it. But I would say, from my perspective, something to think about is being strategic. Think about your own goals, whether it's your career goals, or whether it's the goals that you want to achieve for a particular project. Think about what you're trying to achieve and think, does this conversation need to happen to help me achieve that?

RJ: Why do so many people find these sorts of conversations hard?

SPM: I think the number one thing it comes down to is that we all want to be liked. That's something that comes up time and time again. When we do training around tricky conversations, people worry that if they raise these issues, that people will not like them anymore.

I think it does run deeper than that too because as humans we are herd animals. The ability to cooperate and to not raise difficult issues and create conflict is key to our survival. It's quite deeply ingrained in us, I think, to avoid conflict.

One exercise we often do with participants is to get them to think about a tricky conversation they've had and think about their body's response during that conversation. Often what people say is things like their heart beats really quickly, they get sweaty palms, maybe they feel a bit nauseated, even, maybe a bit dry-mouthed. Those are all the effects of adrenaline in your body. That's because your brain is perceiving this conflict as a threat to your survival. It's engaging your fight or flight response. We have, quite deep down inside us, a strong bodily as well as mental response to the thought of these conflicts.

We want to be liked, then we have this very uncomfortable physical response to [having difficult conversations]. When we think about difficult conversations, the whole thing just seems very unpleasant to us. Then when you remember difficult conversations you've had in the past, you remember how uncomfortable it felt. So again, it becomes a bit of a cycle that you continue to avoid them.

I also think culturally, (I know, we're recording this in London today; I think the podcast goes out all over the world) certainly in British working culture and in education, you aren’t given the tools with which to have constructive conversations. If anything, we're taught to stuff all our frustrations and issues down and not raise them and that makes it really difficult too.

RJ: Yes. Do you think that is changing a little bit in Britain?

SPM: Yeah, I think so. I hope so. I think the global influence [on culture] has a role to play because as we do engage with different cultures where they have different styles of communication, I think that gives us different ways to approach these conversations.

RJ: Having thought about everything that makes these conversations difficult, how can we feel more positive about having them?

SPM: I think it's really important to try and reframe them in your mind; to start thinking about them differently. Even simple tricks [like], if you do have these thoughts running through your head, like, oh, my goodness, this is going to be awful. Just change that. When you're thinking that, say, ‘this is not going to be awful; this is going to be a really useful conversation. This is going to help me achieve my goals.’ That mental trick of starting to reframe it in your mind will really help. It sounds really simple but it really helps you as you approach these conversations.

Also, go into it not expecting it to be awful, but expecting a positive outcome. Keep in mind the long-term benefit. If you are asking for a promotion, keep that goal in mind to help you think positively about the conversation.

RJ: Should you prepare for a conversation that you're worried about? And if you should, how would you do that?

SPM: I think, again, there's a bit of a balance to be struck because you don't want to over prepare for it and spend so long rewording what you're going to say and thinking about what you're going to say that you just wind yourself up about it and become really anxious. Also, you never know exactly what's going to happen with the other person. So, you can't really prepare exactly how the conversation is going to go.

But I think it is useful to do a bit of preparation so that you can go into it feeling confident and feeling like you know what you want to say during that conversation. I would go back to the idea of setting out your goals for the conversation; what are you trying to achieve? Once you've done that, you can think about the key pieces of information that you really need to communicate during this conversation to help you achieve that goal.

If it's three or four points that you want to make sure you make, having those in your mind is really going to help you structure the conversation. If it's useful to you, you can write them down, even though you might not necessarily bring the notes with you, but start to organise your thoughts and get it down on paper.

RJ: Is there a good time to have a difficult conversation?

SPM: I think that's an interesting one. I think certainly there's an element of choosing your moment. If the person that you need to have this conversation with is right in the middle of something really stressful, if they're clearly really busy, then that might not be the best time to approach them. Equally, if it's really late towards the end of the day and everyone's exhausted, that's not necessarily going to be the time where everyone is going to be at their best to have a really healthy conversation.

Having said all that, I think the most important aspect about timing is to not put it off. I think we're all guilty of that: we all do that, we delay, we prevaricate. We can think of a million reasons why now is not the right time to have a conversation. You think, I'll just raise it next time, or I'll speak to them about it tomorrow. Then the moment moves on and you’ve missed that opportunity to deal with it when it's fresh in your mind and there and then. The longer you put it off, the more you worry about it; the more awful it seems like it's going to be in your mind.

RJ: Is there any potential for using email or WhatsApp, perhaps when you are putting things off, to stop yourself from doing that?

SPM: Yeah, that's an interesting one. Something that people do say when we run these training sessions is that some people like to use email because it gives them a chance to put their thoughts down, organise them, and make sure they're clearly expressing themselves. [It gives them] time to process rather than in a conversation where you're on the spot a bit more and you're having to give immediate answers. That can feel quite difficult.

However, I think, from my point of view, the best conversations always happen between two people in a room together. We can all think of examples with messages, with emails, where you've sent an email meaning one thing, but the tone, which is missing in a written piece of communication, has come across in the wrong way. Maybe it’s been perceived as passive aggressive, or as being critical, when that's not exactly how you've meant it to come across. Whereas when you're in a room with someone, you can read their body language, they can read yours, they can hear your tone. You get a much better understanding of what the other person is meaning and you get more of a chance to really clearly communicate what you’re meaning as well.

RJ: Would you agree, as well, that sometimes people are more willing to say things in writing that they wouldn't say in person? Or they wouldn't really mean in person?

SPM: Yeah, I think so. Because it's easier in a way to write down something a bit harsher maybe than you'd actually say. I think you see that a lot on social media. The kind of things that people say online are very different to things they would say to someone if they were face to face because you have that barrier of the technology between the two of you. It's also easier to get into a dysfunctional back and forth over text or email.

The other thing I would say is that if you do spend hours putting down all your thoughts into this email and you send it and they don't reply, then you're on tenterhooks thinking, what are they thinking? Are they ever going to reply? What's happening? Whereas if you're in a room with someone, then you're dealing with it there and then.

RJ: If the person that you want to speak to is your boss, do you think you need to approach the conversation differently?

SPM: I often get asked this question. On the one hand, I think your boss is just a human being like any other. So, you don't have to approach it in an extremely different way.

But I do think it's useful if you are approaching someone more senior to you to think about their priorities and to approach it in a strategic way. Think about what the big picture is for the team or the organisation. What are this person's priorities? How is what I'm talking about fitting into that?

If you are asking about a promotion, let's say, how is you stepping up to that next level going to help this person achieve their goals for the team or the department? Or, if you're raising an issue, focus it on the task, the project, the organisation. Say why this is a problem for the organisation rather than just a personal problem for you.

RJ: Yeah, that's interesting. That's really useful. When you go into the conversation, is there anything that you can do?

SPM: I think one of the most useful things you can do before a conversation that you're really worrying about is to breathe. I think we get nervous, we get tense, maybe our heart rate increases, and our breathing rate increases a bit, and then everything starts to feel a bit out of control. If you can take a few minutes to reset, to collect and centre yourself, that's really going to help you get into the right space to have a really useful and productive conversation.

We talked earlier about the adrenal response: your body being pumped full of adrenaline. Breathing is a really useful way of starting to get control of that. A technique that I really like is called rectangular breathing. Essentially you breathe in through your nose for a count of four. Then you breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight. You imagine you're going around the sides of a rectangle. Even just doing that for a few cycles, you really start to notice your heart rate slowing down, [you’re] feeling calmer, more centered and in a better place to approach the conversation.

RJ: Yes, absolutely. The power of breathing is so underrated when it is so powerful. If you find yourself in a difficult conversation that you didn't initiate, so you're on the other side of the conversation, what can you do to cope and make sure that your perspective is being heard?

SPM: I think we've all encountered that, haven't we? Suddenly, you get a bit blindsided by a piece of feedback or some news that you're given at work. It's really hard to respond and collect yourself in order to really respond in a useful and productive way.

If we imagine you're getting a bit of negative feedback, maybe from your boss, and you haven't been expecting it, the first thing most of us do is fly into defence mode. We become defensive and we start thinking of reasons why that's not true, that's not the case. We shut down in terms of our listening as well; we stop listening, and we start thinking about why that person is completely wrong and we're right.

When that starts to happen, try and dial down that defensiveness. Notice it, say, ‘okay, I'm feeling defensive, because I wasn't expecting this’ and start to calm it down and open yourself up to listening to what the person is saying. Really concentrate on taking on board what they're saying. It doesn't mean that you have to accept what they're saying. But you do need to give them the opportunity to really communicate what they're trying to communicate and to take it on board.

I think sometimes, if you're really surprised by [the conversation], you don't listen properly the first time. I think it's totally acceptable to just say to the other person, I wasn't quite expecting this conversation. It'd be really useful if you could recap the main points for me, so that I have time to think about them and process them. That person is probably really nervous about having the conversation with you as well. It's useful, I think, once they've said their piece to you to even thank them for having this conversation. Say, ‘okay, thank you for bringing this to my attention.’ You're acknowledging [what they’ve said] and you're starting off on a positive note rather than immediately jumping to defence and getting into a back and forth between the two of you.

I also think if you need more time to think about it, it's okay to say that. To say, ‘thank you for letting me know about this. I think I just need time to go away and have a think about it and then maybe we can talk about it a bit more later.’

RJ: That's all really useful, almost rethinking our natural responses to these kinds of conversations and how we can alter the way that they go. When you're having a difficult conversation, is body language another factor? Is that important?

SPM: I think body language is so important. I think it's useful for us all to look back on conversations we've had, whether at home or at work, and [think about] how the other person's body language has affected us.

There's lots of research into this area and the estimates vary, but the consensus is pretty much that at least 70 per cent of communication is non-verbal. Humans are really attuned to picking up these non-verbal cues from people. So, managing your body language is really essential to having a good conversation with someone.

I think it's useful to imagine you're trying to keep an open channel of communication between you and the other person and your body can form a barrier to that. If you have your arms crossed or your legs crossed, [if you’re] holding, clutching a folder in front of you, putting up that barrier between you, it shuts off that channel of communication. Instead, you can try and open that channel [by] having an open, relaxed stance. Good eye contact is really important. Sometimes nodding in agreement with what they're saying, just to signal to the other person that you're listening, that you're on board with them, smiling if it's appropriate.

Sometimes without even realising it, we do things ¬– like if we're disagreeing with what someone's saying, we lean away from them. Be conscious of that and instead lean in slightly to show that you're listening, and you're interested in what they're saying. If we're feeling a bit stressed, often our shoulders hunch up. Be conscious of that and start to relax that. Definitely avoid any signs of being dismissive, like eye rolling. Any signals like that are not going to make the other person feel like you're listening and accepting what they're saying.

RJ: Yes, absolutely. Perhaps you've touched on this a little bit, but during the conversation, how can you make sure that you get your point across?

SPM: I think there are a few things to think about. Partly, as we already talked about, identifying your goals for the conversation and the key pieces of information you want to communicate. I think it's really easy in the midst of tricky conversations to get a bit distracted and start going into all kinds of different rights and wrongs of the situation. Instead, focus on those pieces of information that you're trying to communicate and be quite specific about it. Don’t get into the abstract, talk in specifics about the particular issues that you're trying to address. Also, being direct, not beating around the bush too much. Being frank, but in a respectful way, addressing the key issue head on is really useful.

Another aspect of this I think is quite important is [that] when we get nervous, we can increase the speed at which we talk: you can talk quite quickly. Be conscious of that and start to slow down your cadence. Speak slowly so you can make sure you're putting your point across in a calm way that's easy for the other person to understand. I think if you can do all those things, it's really going to help you make sure that you get those points that you need to across.

RJ: You mentioned avoiding speaking too quickly, is there anything else that we should avoid doing during a tricky conversation?

SPM: There's a psychologist called John Gottman who's really interesting. He writes a lot about relationships and healthy conversations. He identified four communication behaviours that he theorises will always derail the conversation. He talks firstly about blame. Assigning blame to the person you're talking to is immediately going to make them feel defensive. Equally, even if you're not blaming that particular person, but someone on their team, they might feel defensive about that. Instead of thinking about blaming particular people, think about talking about the issue, the problem, the task and keeping it focused on that.

Gottman also talks about contempt. [For example,] being dismissive [or] sarcastic. I mentioned before about eye rolling. These are all things that are not going to help get the conversation into the right place for it to be really constructive.

Also, defensiveness, which I've talked about a lot already. We’re all defensive; we all get defensive, it's a very natural response. But try and dial down that defensiveness and not come at it from a point of trying to defend your particular position. Instead focus on the two of you in the conversation [who] have a problem that you're trying to solve together.

Gottman’s last [behaviour] is stonewalling. When he talks about that he's really talking about withdrawing, refusing to engage, which is a really common response to a tricky conversation. But clearly, if you don't engage in the conversation, you're not going to get a chance to say what you need to say and you're not going to make any progress in solving the issue at hand.

RJ: What if you start to feel emotional during the conversation, how can you cope with that?

SPM: I think it's really hard. I'm aware that different cultures around the world treat emotions in the workplace differently. Certainly, in Western business culture, we're encouraged to keep emotion out of the workplace, but it inevitably finds its way back in because we are emotional creatures. Work can be stressful; it can be hard and it can bring those emotions to the surface.

I think if you are feeling emotional in a conversation, firstly, don't beat yourself up about it, that's totally normal. Lots of people have very emotional reactions to conflict. I think the first thing is to notice it in yourself and to name it. Think in your head, okay, I'm getting upset because I'm feeling threatened. Name it; that's the first step to starting to manage it. Also, if you think it's useful, then you can name it to the other person as well. Say, ‘I'm feeling really nervous about this conversation,’ or, ‘I'm feeling a bit upset,’ just so they understand where you're coming from as well and you can start to have more of an empathetic connection between the two of you.

If it comes to the point that you're not able to carry the conversation, either because you're so upset or you're becoming too frustrated, then I think you do have to draw a line on it and say, ‘I think I'm going to need to come back to this conversation, when I'm feeling a bit calmer.’

RJ: It's interesting, you talked earlier about the training that we have culturally in these areas. I think a lot of these techniques that you're talking about are things that perhaps, as a society, we’re starting to think about more and talk about more, and that perhaps that will help us to learn some more of these techniques in the future. I don't know if you would agree with that.

SPM: Yeah, I think that's right. I think it is becoming more acceptable, for example, to talk about emotions and wellbeing in the workplace. I think people are more and more making that connection between the performance of an organisation being linked to the wellbeing of their people.

I think the ability to have these conversations with each other instead of keeping calm and carrying on all the time is a key part of that. I do think culturally we are changing; we are becoming more comfortable talking about things we're finding difficult, talking about emotions, being vulnerable. I think from my perspective, that's going to be a really positive change in the workplace.

RJ: When we're having these difficult conversations, are there any words or phrases that we should avoid using?

SPM: Yeah, I think there are definitely some words and phrases that are not helpful in conversations. I think certainly anything that feels like an exaggeration. If you say, ‘oh, you always do this, you're always late with your work,’ or something like that. Firstly, that feels like a big criticism to the person, which will make them feel defensive. But also, then you can get into a conversation about, ‘I didn't hand it in late last Tuesday’ rather than dealing with the actual issue. Avoid those absolute and exaggerated statements.

I also think it's useful to avoid using words like ‘obviously’ because it might be obvious to you but perhaps to the other person it's not obvious. Don’t assume that your point of view is obvious.

Also, anything that's too personal, like, ‘oh, that was unprofessional,’ or ‘when you said that thing that was ridiculous.’ Anything that feels like a personal attack is not going to help you in the conversation. Keeping it focused on the particular issue, the challenge, the problem that you're trying to solve together is a much more useful way of approaching it.

RJ: I think that's interesting as well, what you say about something that's obvious to you isn't necessarily obvious to the other person. Because it's not so easy to recognise that somebody else will have a completely different perspective on something. But when you do recognise that it can be quite empowering to understand that it's not that they're just being difficult; they just haven't thought about it like you have. When you can work on that, it's really helpful.

SPM: Yeah, absolutely. Understand that the people you work with, even when you're finding them frustrating, are not setting out to deliberately frustrate you, to be annoying to you. They're just another human being with their own stuff going on. [It’s helpful] to understand that that's what we all are and that often there's more common ground than there is difference between you if you can just find it. Someone in a workshop said something quite interesting. She said, ‘there are always three people in a conversation. There's you, the other person, and then there's the truth, which is probably somewhere in between the two of you.’

RJ: Definitely. What about after the conversation? What should we do then?

SPM: I think something that I try and do after every tricky conversation I've had is to take a bit of time to reflect on it. To say, ‘what went well? What didn't go so well? And what can I learn for next time?’ If you're the sort of person who likes to take notes; I'm a big note taker. I do like to take notes about it because it helps me process my thoughts and helps me prepare for next time as well.

RJ: Well, thank you very much. That's been such an interesting conversation about conversations, difficult conversations [and] how we can reframe them by thinking about them differently, both afterwards and during [the conversation]. Thank you so much for your time today. It's been really interesting.

How to have difficult conversations

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