11 Keys to Mastering Difficult Conversations

Photo by Alexis Brown
Photo by Alexis Brown
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The Challenge: Giving feedback, essential to any relationship, in a way that will be heard

The Science: Specific communication techniques can enhance our ability to lead and motivate

The Solution: Read on for a summative list of tools that to help you master tough conversations!

As a happiness and workplace well-being researcher, I hear this question all the time: what’s the best way to master difficult conversations – how can we give feedback with a good outcome? After all, they’re inevitable at home and at work. I’ve written a number of articles on the topic but here is a summary from that work (including great tips by my colleague Kim Cameron, author of the short but highly informative book Positive Leadership) that compiles a lot of those tips:

1. Deliver more positive than negative feedback.

High-performing organizations deliver roughly five times as many positive statements (supportive, appreciative, encouraging) to every one negative statement (critical, disapproving, contradictory). This is because bad is stronger than good; our brains focus on negative feedback more than positive feedback. (You know this if you’ve ever had one bad conversation ruin your whole day.) Positive communication correlates with much higher worker engagement, our research suggests. You can correct your employees, even criticize or confront them, but you want to do so in a positive context. That is when you will see the best results and maintain morale and engagement.

2. Focus on communicating the other person’s strengths, unique contributions, and best-self demonstrations.

Traditionally, we tend to focus on giving employees critical feedback. However, by focusing on their weaknesses, we only create competence. By focusing on their strengths, we create excellence.  Be as specific about positive feedback as you are about negative feedback. We usually gloss over the strengths, mentioning them briefly but then focus in much greater detail on the critical feedback. Remember to add examples and details to your positive feedback. 

3. Emphasize collaboration and commonalities.

Try to stay objective when you speak about the negative event. Describe the problematic situation (rather than evaluating it), identify objective consequences or your personal feelings associated with it (rather than placing blame); and suggest acceptable alternatives (rather than arguing about who is right or at fault). 

4. Facial expression.

We deduce how someone is helping from their facial expression. Someone’s smile activates the smile muscles in your own face, while their frown activates your frown muscles, according to research by Ulf Dimberg. We internally register what another person is feeling by experiencing it in our own body. Smiling is so important to social interactions that we can discern whether someone is smiling even if we can’t see them. Your smile is thus something to think about even if you are delivering feedback over the phone. Smile appropriately to project warmth and goodwill.

5. Eye contact.

Research shows eyes really are the windows to the soul: You can predictably tell someone’s emotions from their gaze. Eye contact is the crucial first step for resonance, a term psychologists use to describe a person’s ability to read someone else’s emotions. It’s also important for creating a feeling of connection. Make and maintain eye contact when you’re giving someone feedback.

6. Voice.

From infancy, we are acutely aware of the voices of people we consider important, and the way we feel about another person shifts the way we speak. The tone of our voice, more than the words themselves, can give away how we feel. In fact, new research shows that we can often predict someone’s emotions from their voice.

7. Posture.

The way a person is sitting — slumped or sitting tall, arms open or crossed — transmits a message. When we walk into a room and find someone sitting with their arms crossed, we feel less connected to them. Having your chest open, arms uncrossed, making sure to keep nodding, smiling, and vocalizing (saying things like “mhmm” and “yes” in response to the other party) will help. Make sure you take on a nondominant stance; after all, your role is already powerful. The best way for the other party to hear you is if you are not domineering. 

8. Breath.

Research shows that the emotions we feel change the way that we breathe. You have probably noticed that when you’re stressed or angry you breathe quickly and shallowly, and when tired or exasperated you are more likely to sigh. Similarly, when we are with someone who sighs a lot, we may feel that they are annoyed at us. Before the conversation, try to take some deep, calming breaths. When you exhale, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, so focus on breathing out longer than you breathe in. Doing this for a couple of minutes before a meeting will help you start the meeting from a place of calm. That calmness will also help your interlocutor feel more at ease.

9. Attention.

Our mind wanders 50% of the time, research suggests. Moreover, given our busy schedules and the messages and emails that are popping onto our screens throughout the day, we sometimes are not present with the people in front of us — we’re still processing something that happened earlier, or we’re thinking about an article we just read or a phone conversation we just had. And the people you are talking to can tell. Because you are not fully present, you are less likely to hear them and respond to them skillfully, let alone understand where they are coming from.

10. Authenticity.

Despite all this advice, it’s critical that you be authentic, or your efforts will backfire. Just think of how you feel when you’re around someone who seems to be something they are not: We often walk away feeling uncomfortable or manipulated. Our blood pressure rises in the face of inauthenticity, according to research by James Gross at Stanford University.

11. Most important: Compassion.

Rather than seeing the feedback situation as “work” or something you need to just get through, see the conversation as an opportunity to connect with another person who has their own needs and pain. Everyone, at some point, goes through tough times, sad times, painful times. By remembering the human experiences we all share, you will find that you are able to bring kindness and compassion into the conversation. If you are giving feedback, you will probe into what has prompted your employee to act a certain way and you will find the right words to encourage a different type of behavior. Research shows that employees feel greater loyalty and are inspired to work harder for managers who are compassionate and kind.

This article first appeared in PsychologyToday.

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Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä

EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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1 Comment

  • John Powderly says:

    This is a good article. That said, it appears to emphasise a one-way conversation, where person A is giving feedback to person B. This is classic managerial style, but true compassion and authenticity will emerge when the working culture allows and enables more two-way conversations.

    This is where the person giving feedback is open to receiving feedback as well; even if it is only advice on how to give feedback in a better way!

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