The Secret to Having Hard Conversations

Many leaders approach hard conversations the wrong way. The two most common mistakes we see are (1) allowing your emotions to set the tone and (2) making judgments about a person.

The human brain responds to perceived threats with a fight or flight defense mechanism. Heightened emotions and accusatory judgments trigger that threat response. Even very emotionally intelligent and mature people can find it difficult to remain calm and rational in those circumstances. When this happens, constructive conversation becomes virtually impossible.

There’s one specific skill you can steal from our team’s professionally trained coaches that will help you have more productive hard conversations:

Practice making observations without including any judgments.

A judgment is an observation with an attitude. More specifically, a judgment is an interpretation, a story that we add to an observation. If someone is late, our judgment might be that they don’t care about their job, or they don’t respect us. If someone questions a decision, our judgment might be that they think they could do a better job.

There’s nothing inherently logical about these judgments. They could be (and often are) wrong. Most importantly, even if the judgment is right, people inevitably respond defensively when they feel judged. This triggers their fight or flight reflex and makes it impossible to have a constructive conversation.

Here are a few examples of how making observations without judgments can change the conversation.

Judgment: “I can’t believe you did that.”

Observation without judgment: “I noticed you did this. Can you share why?”

Judgment: “When our team makes a decision, you often walk away and do whatever you want to do. You never listen. You think your way is better than the team’s way.”

Observation without judgment: “I’ve noticed a pattern over the last few weeks. Our team will make a decision, but instead of carrying that out, you do something different. This makes me feel that you don’t respect our decision-making process, or that you aren’t listening. I don’t want to make too many assumptions, but I also want you to be aware of the impact of your actions. What do you think about this? Can you share more about your actions?”

Judgment: “You messed up this opportunity for us.”

Observation without judgment: “In that last conversation, I noticed that you were very quick to start talking about our solutions. I don’t think this was your intent, but it made me feel like I was listening to bragging. I perceived that the prospect shut down because we weren’t asking her more questions about her needs, and I think there’s a good chance we’ve lost the sale because of it. Take me back to that moment in the meeting—can you share what was going on in your head?”

Notice a few important differences here: 

  1. This approach requires more time & care. You’ll need to think about what you say before you say it. Mature leaders should already do this, but we’re all works in progress and it’s easy for emotions to get in the way.
  2. The conversation is now focused on specific words & behaviors (which are objective realities) rather than our interpretations of those words and behaviors (which are subjective judgments). This is a much more fruitful avenue of dialogue.
  3. This gives the recipient of a hard conversation the space to explain their point of view, and (ideally) own his mistakes, and then commit to doing something differently next time.
  4. Finally, and maybe most importantly: if someone is unable to respond well to measured, careful feedback, they probably shouldn’t last long on your team—because they are uncoachable.

The next time you need to have a hard conversation, allow some space for your emotions to cool off. Then, intentionally separate your observation from any judgments. And when you talk about it, be sure to focus on what you observed, and leave the judgment to yourself. Let them fill in the gaps. Whether they respond well or not, you’ll learn something very important about them.

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