Amplify editor Bec Lloyd writes about her E-E-E-Easy to remember guide for preparing to have a difficult conversation.
Your stomach is churning, your pounding temples are pulling your eyes back into your skull, your shoulders are tightly wedged under your ears, and you just realised you’ve been tapping your pen so long that it’s driven a hole through your notebook page.
And the note you just wrote to yourself?
“Must talk to X.”
X might be the staff member who has just texted (at 7.45am!) they have gastro and won’t be in. It’s got to be the fifth time this term and their Facebook profile shows a very fine night being had at someone’s birthday drinks last night.
Or X might be the landlord who told the cleaning service they don’t have to empty your bins daily or clean the parking area even though it is included in your lease conditions.
Or X might be the parents whose five-year-old child continues to display developmental delays that you believe need professional review, the parents who have already told you you’re imagining things and want their son to start school next year with a ‘clean slate’.
One of those conversations
Whoever X is, your anxiety and tension is rising because it’s going to be one of those conversations. A difficult conversation that you desperately want to avoid but know that, as a professional person, you have no choice but to face.
There are many, many, methods out there for approaching difficult conversations. Entire books and professional training programs exist to develop and refine your skills. Mostly, however, the advice will boil down to four things:
- do your research
- know what you want to achieve
- appreciate the other person’s perspective
- be prepared for the next step.
Every situation will be different, and every person facing a difficult situation will be different too. This means there are many variables at play whenever someone gives advice about how to handle a hard discussion.
There could be as many ‘correct’ approaches as there are situations you’d rather not face, I’m afraid, and you’re going to have to adapt any advice or skills or instincts you have to match each scenario as best you can.
For a general, practical guide, however, here’s a framework I developed specifically for a group of early childhood educators who asked for help with hard conversations they had to have with parents about children’s behaviour issues and/or developmental delays. As I put it together I found I could not just make it a simpler process than many other guides, but I could make it easier to remember, because each of the four steps began with an easy ‘E’.
In addition to the E-E-E-easy material that follows, of course, we covered the broader issues of how anxiety looks and feels, both for educators and parents. For instance, anxiety manifests as anger for many people, or it can create physical symptoms like sighing (because the person is holding their breath) which appears to others as impatience or blame.
The urge to blame is based . . . on the fear of being blamed.
We also looked at how to build the strongest possible trust and relationships with families in the first place, to reduce the need for many of the hard conversations this group was experiencing.
However, some difficult conversations will appear at times in every career, and in those moments you need to return to the four basic pieces of advice I listed above. As a way to remember them, I called the session the E-E-E-Easy Way to have Hard Conversations.
The Es stand for:
Let’s go through them now.
It might seem obvious – especially in hindsight – but before you face a hard conversation you really must have your facts ready.
For the example of our frequently gastric staff member this means checking their records so you aren’t just going with the feeling they are taking an unusual number of days off.
What is the Evidence? Look carefully at their absence dates, compare them with other staff members’ attendances, check for medical certificates, and think about whether there have also been genuine reasons as well as your suspicions about the current situation. Coincidences do exist, and it might be that some of the days you feel are unsupported absences were actually taken as approved leave for other reasons.
When you know that the facts support your concerns, it’s time for a talk.
One of the reasons many educators become nervous about hard conversations with families is they fear their professional judgment will be questioned and they will find it hard to defend their position.
Take the example of speaking again with a family about your feeling their child has a developmental delay, although they rejected your concern the first time you raised it.. Assuming you’ve got your Evidence (above), what else can you bring to the discussion? This is where you must trust your Expertise.
After all, your professional judgement and expertise – skills and knowledge – is behind your observations about a child’s developmental progress and awareness of the range of ‘normal’ for their age group. Your expertise is also what informs your view that the child would benefit from having a specialist consider their progress.
The goal you want to achieve – for the child to be assessed by a specialist – is also set by your expertise. You know things that the family may not know, like what specialists exist and how to access them.
The child’s family should be respected for its expertise too – they know more about the child and about other family members than you ever will. You have to prepare for this conversation by being very clear of your own limits, not just theirs.
So, yes, your expertise might be questioned. That’s going to happen sometimes no matter what. The child’s family might be just as much scared for their child as they appear angry that you have raised your concern. As long as you are firm about what you do – and don’t – know, you will be supported by the strength of your expertise and able to clearly advocate for the outcome you want.
But what of the other party in this hard conversation, you ask, why are they making things so difficult for you?
Here’s where we get to that third basic piece of advice: appreciating the other person’s perspective or, very simply, Empathy.
Before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way you’ll be a mile away from them, and you’ll have a new pair of shoes…
Many hard conversations become much harder because we go into them determined to be right and quite certain the other party is wrong. Showing empathy for the other person should be your strength, not a weakness.
And let’s remember that you have not walked a mile in this person’s shoes and asking questions that show empathy might open your eyes to new evidence. Phrases like ‘Can you help me to understand …?’ or re-statements like ‘So what I think I’m hearing from you is…’ will help keep the communication open and two-way.
You’re having this difficult discussion with somebody because somewhere the communication has broken down and a misunderstanding has appeared.
In our first examples, for instance, the errant staff member might not realise how seriously their absence affects the service, the landlord might not understand what two-day-old nappies smell like, the child’s family might view a developmental delay as a criticism of their parenting.
Ask yourself, very simply, ‘Why does X think I want to talk to them?’ and explore that thought before you book your call or meeting. If possible, find out more (Evidence) about their position before you have the discussion. What might present to you as anger could be fear, what might look callous or domineering could just be ignorance. The more you understand how the other party feels, the more prepared you will feel.
And fourthly, get ready to explore options during the hard conversation. Much of life is about compromise and while, yes, I know I said you should know what you want to achieve, I am also going to say be prepared to negotiate, to listen to other options, and even to be surprised.
By the time you have the conversation you will have your evidence, but the other party may bring information that you could not have gathered yourself.
By the time you have the conversation you should be confident in the outcome your expertise tells you is desirable, but the other party may surprise you with an option that is just as good, or even better.
By the time you have the conversation you will have some empathy for the other party’s position, but you may also hear things that you could not have imagined or discovered without that person’s direct contribution.
If you think about the goal of exploring being an end in itself, and structure your difficult conversation that way, you will remove a lot of the fear, anger and contempt that arises when you instead try to convince another party to see things your way.
It is going to be okay!
Your dread for this conversation will be feeding your anxiety and making your expectations of the event far more negative and grim than they need to be. So take a few long, slow breaths. Get those shoulders back down below your ears and give them a wiggle. Now, turn to a new page in your notebook (one without a big tension ink blot all over it!) and put some thoughts down under these four headings:
Evidence – what have I seen, heard or read that can be shared?
Expertise – what does my training and experience tell me?
Empathy – what might the other party be feeling right now? What can I ask them to find out more?
Exploration – apart from my current goal for this meeting, what other options could I be open to?
Practise good practice
My final tip for hard conversations is to ask your partner or a friend you trust to listen to you rehearse what you think you need to say. It should only take a couple of minutes to sum up the reason for the conversation and the outcome you hope to achieve. Ask your listener to tell you if you are:
- making your point clearly enough
- leaving room for exploring options
- using language that the other party will easily understand (pedagogical jargon, begone!)
- showing empathy.
Can’t find a listener? Pull out your phone and talk to the voice recorder app and force yourself to listen to the playback as impartially as you can. We all hate to hear our own recorded voices but, wow, is it a great way to project yourself into the other party’s chair and understand how they might react!
What are your tips for difficult conversations? Share them in the comments below.