How to have difficult conversations at work

You’ve got to fire someone. Your consulting project is way behind schedule. The budget has to get cut. In any job you’ll have to have tough conversations where fear can end up being the fuel for positive and effective change, or it can crumble you into wishing you had done the whole thing differently.

With just a little bit of neuroscience in your back pocket you can turn the toughest conversations at the office into opportunities for more success and even to create healthier relationships.  

Five tips to help you use fear as fuel for tough conversations:

1. Act Quickly

The sooner you realize there is bad news to deliver the quicker you need to act. When should you act? What should you expect? First, know what you are going to say and your key points. Take enough time to do the following four steps, and make sure you are not emotionally hijacked first, then have the conversation. But before you do – visualize all the possible ways it could go – someone screaming at you, someone sobbing, someone bullying you. If you imagine many outcomes, you’ll be ready for any response.

2. Plan the talk, but don’t script it

Put your talking points together the why, what ,when and who of the situation and focus first and foremost on the facts. Remember you can’t control how other people feel. Many people fear the reaction others will have and try to think of the most clever or easy way to break the news – that’s a fool’s errand. Stick to facts as best you can; the impact and reason you’re having the talk. Be clear about the desired outcome. If you are fair and direct you have nothing to fear.

3. Breathe and Feel the Fear

Your fear tells are likely to be activated because your amygdala (the fear center at the base of our brain) will have an instinctual reaction of being rejected from the tribe, or being seen as an imposter, or sensing a threat when someone lashes back in anger. Understand those feelings are tell-tale signs that there is an opportunity here, not a threat. Think of the conversation as a challenge and your amygdala is letting you know the task requires preparation to meet. There’s always something you can learn when you feel butterflies, or sweaty palms. Use my Four by Four breathing method outlined in my best-selling book Fear is Fuel before you have the conversation. Take five minutes before your talk and do some breathing exercises and tell yourself you having this conversation to help everyone involved.

4. Sympathize but Don’t Empathize

When you plan out your talking points try to think about the perspective of the person you are talking to. Understand how they are feeling and ask them if your assessment is correct. For instance: “I know this might make you angry, or do you feel helpless?” Act with genuine curiosity and try to imagine how they are going to receive your message. Don’t try to control their feelings, just try to understand how they may feel and ask them to share that with you. You can have sympathy for someone without agreeing with why they feel the way they do. If someone has to be fired because they are not in the right position they may feel attacked or singled out for poor work – you don’t have to agree with their assessment but you can sympathize that it will be a painful experience for them and they will probably be sad or angry.

5. Actively Listen

Make sure after you speak you listen to what the person is saying and repeat back the key points and ask if you understood correctly. The more you can focus on repeating the key facts, and how they feel about it the more you can separate facts from feelings. Also notice how you are feeling and that will help you be more present for the conversation. Any tough conversation you have is going to cause you to create judgements, the best outcome to theses challenging feelings are to recognize that you are judging something the other person is saying. When you catch yourself judging their perspective, or their story tell yourself – STOP! Then be curios and try to figure out how their story could be true, or how they might be feeling what they are. In any tough conversation its easy to become foes and be antagonist – replacing judgement with curiosity will keep that from happening. Plus you’ll learn and you’ll populate your subconscious database with even more information for future decison making.

Key Points to Remember:

  • Use fear as the fuel to meet a challenge – don’t think of the conversation as a threat, think of it as an opportunity for everyone to grow and learn.
  • Breath – neuroscientists call breathing using the 4×4 method bottoms-up information. If your brain senses you’re breathing controlled and steady it assumes you are not under threat and gives you more control over your thought process and planning
  • Recognize and verify how the other person is feeling and what they are saying to make sure you get it right.
  • You’ll earn respect and admiration for being honest and direct, not trying to control someone’s reaction.
  • Think tough love – often a bad message leads to positive outcomes for all

To test your fear and see where you might need help in your life take this fun Five minute Fear Test now.

If you want Patrick Sweeney to lead a company transforming bootcamp reach out today.

Lastly, for more great tips, listen to one of the top rated self help audiobook of 2021 grab a copy of Fear is Fuel with 10 special guest performances.

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