How to navigate through difficult conversations

I have never been the person that was good at bringing up unpleasant topics that bothered me. No matter if it was a co-worker, my boss, or even my flatmate – I rather kept my opinion to myself to avoid any conflict. I didn’t want to irritate them or possibly strain our relationship. If you, like me, put harmony on top of their agenda, here’s the thing: If you don’t speak out what’s bothering you, nobody else will do it for you. Of course, you can simply ignore your own perspective and hope the situation will resolve itself. Almost everyone I know has tried that out already, and if you are one of them, you will agree that this strategy didn’t really prove to be helpful. There are more effective ways you can learn to give non-offensive, constructive feedback that rather strengthens than strains your relationships.

Two young successful co-workers in smart casual sitting by table in cafe and interacting about working points

How you can learn to give constructive feedback and have conflict discussions

After finishing my degree, I took on responsibilities in HR and Operations Management. When I saw myself confronted with tough situations, e.g. where I had to give critical feedback or where I wouldn’t have been able to deliver results on time if I didn’t bring up the topic promptly, I often remembered a theory I learned during my study program. The lecture that turned out to be the most handy and beneficial was Business Psychology Conversation. Along with some of the classic communication theories, there was one concept that especially stuck with me. I started using its framework to navigate through difficult conversations or give feedback when necessary. It proved to be one of the most helpful tools I had learned. 

Not only is it super easy to adopt, but also spans a wide range of situations I use it in now. I also recommend it to young professionals and young entrepreneurs that are working on their leadership skills during our workshops. It makes discussions feel more natural, constructive and gives them the necessary distance. Instead of blaming someone if something didn’t work out, you will explain to them what you perceived, how that made you feel, and what you wish for in the future, before giving them the opportunity to share their opinion on the topic. Be objective and patient with the one across the table. Following these simple steps will make the feedback more objective and constructive and, thus, will help you strengthen the relationship instead of straining it.

Let these questions and principles guide your future difficult discussions 

There are certain principles and questions that you can use to prepare for just about any feedback you would like to give. 

1. What did you notice or perceive? 

Describe as specifically and objectively as possible what you have perceived. Avoid words like “always” or “never”, but rather refer to that particular situation that you would like to talk about. Lean on facts to bring the conversation to a more objective level.

2. How did that make you feel? 

Describe your thoughts and feelings in the situation. Which effect did the behaviour your perceived have on you?

3. What do you wish for in the future? 

How would you like your counterpart to behave in a similar situation in the future? What’s important to you? Reflect upon your wishes and expectations and express them clearly. 

4. How did the dialogue partner perceive the situation? 

Give the other person room to share their own perspective. Have in mind that everyone has their very own reality, feelings and reasons for their behaviour. Giving someone the opportunity to contribute their opinion and individual perspective on the issue will make them feel valued and respected. This makes the discussion more objective and constructive.

5. Agree on a solution

The goal of your conversation should be to find a solution that both parties are satisfied with, and to agree on an alternative, effective behavior for future situations.

What a constructive dialogue could look like

How can you adopt this structure for any difficult situations? Here are a few examples on how to use them to open up a constructive dialogue, and what a conversation could look like.

1. When one of your employees or coworkers continuously runs late for meetings 

Imagine the following scenario: You’ve recently noticed that one of your employees has been late several times for team meetings. This made you and other team members feel unappreciated by that co-worker, as well as annoyed as you could’ve used that time to work on your own projects. You could state the problem like this:

“I noticed you ran 10 minutes late for our meetings already two times this month. This has been really irritating for me, as I had a tight deadline on a project and could’ve used that time more efficiently. It made me feel as if you didn’t value my or the team’s time. I wish that you are on time for our next meetings and let us know if you cannot make it on time, so the rest of the team doesn’t have to wait. I know that you probably didn’t intend to give me this feeling, and I would really appreciate if you could share your opinion on this with me so that we can discuss how we would both like to deal with this in future situations.”

2. When a coworker doesn’t pay attention to the details 

Imagine another situation: One of your employees consistently sends you slides with a lot of mistakes. You could tell them „There’s at least one mistake in every slide you sent to me! I don’t have time to correct them for you every time! You always work this carelessly! Now I have to do the work for you“. Or you could approach them by saying:

„In the customer presentation you sent to me yesterday, I noticed quite a few slips and formatting errors. During our last conversation, I pointed out that this is a really important customer and asked you to carefully check the documents we sent out to them. When I received the presentation at 6 p.m. yesterday and we had to send them out EOD, I had to stay in late to correct them by myself, as we had to send them out EOD. I had to cancel private plans for this and felt very upset that you hadn’t spell checked it or asked me for help before sending it out. It gave me the feeling that you didn’t remember our last talk and as if you wouldn’t value my time. I know that you probably didn’t do it on purpose, and I really value your work. Therefore it is really important to me that I can rely on the quality of the customer presentations you prepare, so that you can go into the lead in the future. I would like to see that you work very detail oriented on this. I am  happy to give you any tips that helped me to keep an eye on any slips before I send a presentation to customers if you would like to hear them. How do you feel about this? What would you like to discuss and how can I help you with this for the future?”

Additional useful feedback principles

  1. Reflect upon feedback that has been given to you in the past. How did it make you feel? What made you feel that way? Was there any specific positive or negative feedback that you remember? Derive your own principles and behaviour from your own experience. 
  2. Preparation is key. Know what you would like to bring across and how you would like to start the conversation. You can also ask a friend for a rehearsal if you aren’t sure if it comes across the right way.
  3. Give feedback promptly. At PEAKZONE, we use the 24-hour rule. If something bothers you, you should ideally bring it up within 24 hours. This way, both parties involved still have the situation fresh in the memory. Take your time to prepare for the conversation, but don’t let it go unspoken for too long.
  4. Always remember the main goal of giving feedback: You want to reach a solution. You want to continue to constructively and effectively work together. 
  5. Feedback is a relationship builder. It may not seem or feel like this at first glance, but it can help you strengthen your relationship and build trust in the long run.
  6. Remember that everyone has their own experiences, perceptions and reasons. People rarely do or say things to irritate you on purpose. Starting your discussions with sympathy will make you a more effective communicator.

Try it out 

You will have to give constructive feedback and have conversations about unpleasant topics at some point. This will never feel particularly pleasant. One can only try to bring it to a factual level, give it in a constructive, non-offensive way, and show that feedback is meant to be appreciative, to support someone in their personal or professional development.

I hope these simple steps will help you to communicate more effectively, and put you a little bit more at ease during any difficult conversations you have to have. 

What are your experiences?

Are there any discussions that were particularly constructive or destructive that you remember? What are your tips, tricks and personal principles that you use to give feedback and communicate more effectively in difficult conversations? I would love to hear about your personal experiences!

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