Our days are filled with conversation. And some of the conversations are difficult. We avoid them. We debrief with others. We complain.

What Makes a Conversation Difficult?

We’re going to focus on conversations about work performance here, but you might see similarities in your personal life. I have identified three types of difficult conversations in the workplace:

  1. Difficult Messages: What we need to communicate or discuss may be very personal, a behavior or personal characteristic. We might be trying to illuminate a “blind spot” for the other person. Or, the conversation feels difficult because we’ve already delivered the message one or more times with no success. The message itself is difficult.
  2. Difficult People: The person or group of people may be highly emotional, and we worry about managing the emotion on top of the message. Someone may be generally resistant to change or the expectation we are communicating. She might be a bit self-centered, always deflecting any accountability for mistakes.The person or our relationship with that person may be in the way of an easier conversation.
  3. Difficult Situations: The conversation may be about a situation that has numerous players, lots of third-party information, power dynamics (boss or otherwise), or simply lots of moving parts and sequences. The message may be complicated by the situation being addressed.

Three Guiding Principles

However the conversation is difficult for you, consider three principles to guide your preparation or reflection.

  1. Focus on the Facts. The facts have the best chance of “neutralizing” and making any conversation productive. If you don’t have enough facts, gather more. Then, engage the other person or people in expanding and interpreting the fact-base during the conversation. We so often try to have our view prepared independent of the dialogue.
  2. Check Your Self. Every conversation you consider “difficult” is difficult for YOU. You are one of the people in the conversation. You have a history, a set of experiences, an emotional make-up, and a vested interest. Take a look at yourself and check your own intention.
  3. Crystallize the impact that matters to you, others, the person. Lastly, when you think the conversation will be difficult for you, take the time to envision the exact conversation you want to have. What will you say, how will the other person respond, then what. Where do you want to be at the end of the conversation? What’s most important to you? To the other person?

The Real Answer

All that said, the real answer to my question “What’s difficult in difficult conversations?” is much more that:

We want to get the result we want without resistance or emotion.

Each of us labels the conversation “difficult” because we are worried that we will not be able to achieve our desired outcome. We are uncomfortable about whether and how we will be able to handle the person or topic. We are mostly concerned about our own image, success, or feelings. I say this not as a judgment of you or me. It seems to be a natural, human experience. Remember that the same reality is going on for each person.

A conversation is an exchange between one or more people. Make sure you set the stage for real exchange in the conversations most difficult for you. You’re not in control of the outcome; but, you can be in command of yourSelf.