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How to Have a Tough and Productive Conversation

Conducting a tough and productive conversation that produces a win-win resolution of a problem or opportunity is one of the most difficult challenges in life, and few of us possess the skill to make it happen effectively.

Dysfunctional dialogue occurs because we are human beings who possess stories, tapes, and filters in our mind. Our normal reaction to conflict is to misidentify the problem, take things out of context, become defensive, and allow our emotions to take control of our rational responses. This can negatively influence our relationships by provoking either a fight or flight mentality, neither of which is healthy or productive.

Research shows that honest and candid feedback, given in a supportive way, fosters higher performance and employee resilience. However, lack of feedback or feedback poorly given destroys motivation and engagement.

Fortunately, it is a skill that can be acquired.

Start with yourself — Act with 100% Responsibility. Think win-win. Do not allow your emotions to dictate your response to the problem. If appropriate, delay the conversation. Recognize that the first 30 seconds of a tough conversation is the most important as it sets the tone.

Unbundle the problem — Prioritize and address the core problem and not the symptom — be sure the problem is worth addressing. Attack the problem, not the person.

Gather the facts — Be prepared to be specific, not only to what happened but also whether this is a pattern of behavior and not just an isolated incident. State the facts and not your assumptions.

Create a safe environment — Eliminate distractions. Have pure motives; don’t play games or pass the buck. Do not use sarcasm or inappropriate humor. Be aware of your own and the other person’s body language, both facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Separate the person from the behavior — Treat the person with respect regardless of the behavior. Remember, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.

  • Describe expectations, performance, and identify the gap.

  • Don’t allow excuses or the conversation to drift from the core problem.

  • Seek understanding by asking curious, probing, and clarifying questions.

Commit to action and follow up — Ask a simple and sincere question: “What are you going to do about this?” or “What do you think we should do to resolve the problem?” Create action items and clarify agreements, including when and how you will follow up. Then be sure to follow up. In the absence of follow-up and accountability, these conversations become meaningless.

There are few things of greater impact, or that will produce better results, than being able to have tough and productive conversations. These crucial conversations are the key to accountability and foundational to high functioning relationships.


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