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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

23 Aug '11

Difficult Conversations

None of us look forward to hard conversations. In fact, the very thought of them gives some people heartburn. Because of that, they are easy to put off or ignore altogether which often makes the conversation even more necessary. Here are some ways to successfully negotiate such conversations when they are necessary. The one thing you don't want to do is to go into a difficult conversation unprepared.

Before the conversation, clearly define for yourself the issues that you need to address. This includes being ready for push back, objections or questions like "when have I done that?" or "give me examples of ..." A grocery list of issues never works so be sure you can clearly articulate the two or three issues that you need the other party to hear and understand (if they are able to do either or both).

In addition, know what your bottom line is. Are you going to communicate a concern, give an ultimatum, ask them to consider alternatives, terminate their job, ask them to get help? Whatever your bottom line is, be sure you are able to articulate it clearly and not be moved off of it. 

Ask whether you need to have someone else in the room to hear what you are going to say. If the individual has a history of skewing what is said, is hostile, or does not handle hard conversations well, you want to have someone else present so that there is accountability for what is actually said.

When you meet, lay out your concerns and your bottom line in a clear and objective manner. Never impugn the motives of another (we don't know them) and keep to factual statements. If you need to use notes to stay on track, do so but don't make them available to the one you are talking to. Having communicated your concerns, clearly articulate your bottom line - what you are asking of them and then ask if they have any questions of clarification on what you have shared.

Here comes the tricky part. Unhealthy individuals will seek to shift the blame or issues to others or to you. They are experts at self justification and finding others who are at fault. If you are dealing with an unhealthy person, expect that they will try to shift the conversation to you or others and justify themselves. They may well express anger and play the victim role - they are the ones who have been abused. 

Don't bite by engaging in their attempt to shift the conversation. I remember back to my debating days when in cross examination we were supposed to answer the questions of the other side. Often we would ask them questions back, and if they bit, we could then control the conversation they were supposed to be controlling. Remember, this is your conversation, you called it and you control its agenda. No matter how often they try to shift the conversation keep bringing them back to the concerns and bottom line you shared. Other issues may be worthwhile talking about at another time but this is your conversation and you want to keep it on task.

There is no need to prolong the conversation once you know that the other party has heard your concerns and your bottom line. At this point it is important to have a follow up plan. When do you meet again and what do you want from them when you next meet. Be specific and then close the conversation. It may be awkward but you will have accomplished what you need to accomplish and the other party needs time to think and respond.

If you know you need to have such a conversation but fear is keeping you back, find a trusted colleague who can help you walk through the process.