Everything Important Happens Via Challenging Conversations:

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that everything important in your career and your firm is an outcome of one or more challenging conversations. From job interviews to leading change, proposing new investments, delivering performance feedback and so on, everything important that happens in an organization runs straight through challenging conversations.

In too many instances, our discomfort for talking about tough topics reduces these conversations to a muddled mess of mixed-up ideas or an endless string of debates that go nowhere. If you’re striving to stand out from the pack and get ahead in your organization, I encourage you to focus on strengthening your skills for planning, conducting and succeeding with your challenging conversations. While it might help if you had a doctorate in psychology or behavioral science, you can save some time and money by focusing on the following three approaches to navigating your challenging conversations.

Three Approaches to Help You Succeed with Challenging Conversations:

1. Learn to be at your best when things get tense

Imagine you’re pitching your proposal for a significant new project. You’ve done your homework, planned your message, and have people nodding their heads. At least most people are nodding affirmatively. And then it happens. Bob launches a direct strike at your idea, and it feels like a direct strike at you.

Or, you’re doing a run-through on the latest product roadmap and a somewhat testy CEO fresh from sharing with the board why the firm missed the most recent quarterly numbers decides to take some frustration out on you with some particularly difficult questions.

How do you respond in these situations?

If you’re like most of us, it’s either fight or flight. After all, we’re wired that way when faced with a sudden confrontation.

Unfortunately for you, fight or flight are wrong most of the time in these settings. Instead, you need to be at your communication best when your brain is doing everything it can to fight you on this and flood your system with fight or flight juice (adrenaline).

It takes practice and extreme self-control to learn to remain calm when the firestorm is directed at you. But remember, this is one of those challenging conversations moments. Manage this correctly, and you make a positive impression on everyone, including the testy CEO in our example above. Get it wrong, and well, you still make an impact—just not the one you want to make.

My counsel—teach yourself to trigger a brain reset as soon as you find yourself in the middle of a sudden, challenging confrontation.

My Challenging Conversation Brain Reset:

  • Acknowledging in my mind the reality of the confrontation: “I’m in it.”
  • Reminding myself to relax my neck muscles. When I get stressed, I tense up immediately in my neck. It’s essential to prevent this from happening.
  • Taking three or more deep breaths. Breathing is strength!
  • Owning the opportunity to be at my best: “I’ve got this!”
  • Moving to action by asking a question or leaning-in to the verbal attack with extreme empathy followed by a professional counter-punch. “I’m glad you raised this issue, Bob. Let me highlight again how the idea resolves the issue you raised.”

The important thing is to keep control of the conversation and not get dragged into a fight you cannot win. Of course, part of this process requires you to have an incredibly well-developed message, which leads me to our next point.

2. Never show up to a communication battle without a well developed message map

I’m an advocate of extreme planning for important communication situations. I mean extreme. I use a technique called Message Mapping—a topic I write and teach on frequently. Message Mapping forces you to laser focus on a core message and back it with the right layers of evidence and support. It takes time to develop a quality map. It’s hard work and you regularly need to recruit some help to challenge and stress test the map. However, as the commercial goes, having your message carefully thought-out and well-supported and practiced: priceless.

Armed with the content and context of your message map, every issue, every question and every annoying shot can be dealt with by returning to the map. There’s something delightful about watching a detractor swing in the wind when they’ve failed at knocking you off your perch and in fact have the tide of support turned against them by your calm demeanor and crisp, well-practiced delivery.

No one has to know you practiced your message map for the last two days and that in the last few moments you had to resort to an emergency internal reboot to keep your cool. It’s what they see and hear that counts and leaves the impression.

3, Quit fighting communication battles with force—instead, use finesse

Earlier in my career, I relied heavily on my passion, energy, and sheer power of personality to win the day in communication situations. It worked, to a limit, however, it reached a point where the fallout exceeded the gains. I had to learn finesse.

A great mentor who happened to be a great salesperson taught me the power of finesse. He was a master of using empathy and leaning in with kindness to the objectors and resistors. He believed in principled negotiation, and he sought to create wins for all involved. He also taught me the power of uncovering interests instead of arguing over positions. Over the years, I adapted what I learned from this professional to what I term my Principles of Positive Persuasion. The pivot away from force to finesse proved instrumental in my rapid career growth and I remain grateful to this mentor.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The challenging conversations aren’t going to disappear. You can choose to face them, armed with the ability to survive sudden conflagrations and prepared at all times to steer the discussion to your core message. And you can grow your influence by striving to create value as you seek to assert your agenda. Adopt this thinking and use the three approaches and you might find yourself looking forward to and seeking out challenging conversations. And then, watch your career grow!

Art's Signature