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This piece on difficult conversations is written by Cheryl Jensen, an acclaimed instructor of ours who teaches coaching and mentoring others, handling difficult conversations, and managing conflict in our certificates of management and leadership programs, and the National Hispanic Corporate Council’s Corporate Executive Development Program, among others.  Cheryl has extensive corporate experience in sales, management, marketing, human resources, leadership development, learning and organizational change.  She has worked for several Fortune 1000 firms including IBM, American Airlines, and Frito Lay.  She earned an Executive MBA at SMU Cox and serves as an adjunct professor in the Management and Organizations department. She is a certified executive coach.

Difficult Conversations

Cheryl Jensen

How can we handle the most difficult conversations with confidence and skill?  Whether we’re dealing with an underperforming employee, disagreeing with our superior, negotiating with a difficult client, or simply saying “no”, or “I’m sorry”, we attempt to avoid difficult conversations every day. No matter how competent we are, we all have conversations that cause anxiety and frustration.

 What makes a conversation difficult?  “Any time we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult,” according to Douglas Stone in the book, Difficult Conversations.

 Dealing effectively with these difficult conversations can be dynamically improved by developing and enhancing our Emotional Intelligence.  This is defined by Daniel Goleman in Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence as the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.  In a professional setting, if you’re the leader it’s your job to drive the emotions. Goleman contends that no matter what leaders set out to do, their success depends on how they do it.  Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should.

 Based on research by The HayGroup, emotional social intelligence revolves around a continuum of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.  Without self-awareness, a person has virtually no chance of demonstrating self-management.  Self-management competencies include:

  • Emotional self-control
  • Adaptability
  • Achievement orientation
  • Positive outlook

Social awareness derives from empathy and organization awareness.  Developing these fully can lead to relationship management competencies including:

  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Inspirational leadership
  • Influence
  • Conflict management
  • Teamwork

Following are strategies to develop and improve emotional intelligence:

  • Slow down to go fast.  Breathe!
  • Notice your self-talk and learn to watch yourself
  • Become a better listener who diffuses emotions, increases trust and informs.
  • Notice the signals from your body.
  • Be explicit about intentions.  We judge on behavior not intentions.
  • Schedule reflection time; think about your triggers.
  • Set a goal, practice, notice impact on you and others, practice more.
  • Journal on a regular basis.
  • Work with a coach who can be your mirror.

Dealing with difficult conversations will be a continuing challenge for all leaders.  Developing and improving their emotional and social intelligence will enable leaders to be more effective and influential.  Here are some additional tips for productive conversations:

  • Stay open
  • Be quiet
  • Summarize, clarify and restate for understanding
  • Acknowledge and validate
  • Don’t prosecute
  • Ask for permission to counter
  • Avoid asking “Why?”
  • Let go of the need to be right

 As Fred Kofman stated in Conscious Business, “It only takes one skillful person to improve a conversation.”