Recently, I was asked to observe a Home Owners Association board meeting and to provide feedback about what the board members could do to have more effective meetings. From the outset, it was obvious that the entire group of individuals had never received any type of business communication training. More than anything, I was shocked at the way that they treated each other. The lack of respect and common courtesy that they displayed had a huge impact on how some engaged or chose not to engage. The atmosphere that they created by their behaviour did not invite collaboration, contribution, or cooperation. They had no idea about how to improve the quality of difficult conversations.

As the meeting began to unfold, what was obvious was that the lack of good communication skills negatively impacted the participants’ ability to rationally consider the topic that was to be discussed. Because I was asked not to intervene, only observe, I had the opportunity to take some notes and create a plan to help them. Based on those observations, here are 11 ways to improve the quality of difficult conversations.

1. Don’t be waylaid by the process; focus on the content

Some people are so disrespectful in their delivery of a message or unaware of how their actions negatively impact others that it is easy to get distracted by their bad behaviour. Focus on the content of their message and try to understand what is important to them. You can do this by asking considerate and thoughtful questions which demonstrate respect for what they have to say. It will also help you to understand their perspective, and not be derailed by their antics.

2. Don’t take others’ behaviour personally: see past their behaviour

That’s easier said than done, right? When people start yelling, judging, or blaming others, you know that something important to them is not being considered. Their behaviour not only says more about them than it does about you, but it also signals a violated value. Whether that violation is real or not, isn’t important. It is real to them, or they wouldn’t be acting as they are. Try to understand what is important to them and then address it. Don’t make their behaviour about you, because it is all about them.

3. Don’t let your emotions rule your behaviour

Sometimes before we are even aware of what is happening, we begin to feel agitated, irritated, or upset. When this happens, recognize that your protective-reactive mechanism in your brain is beginning to take over. This will definitely affect the quality of difficult conversations.  It is important to be aware of when this is happening to take rational control at the moment. Take a deep breath, relax, and finish the sentence, “I am beginning to become angry because….” Answering this question will help you return to rationality by forcing you to think about the reasons behind your feelings. Once you have surfaced your thinking, then you are in a place to challenge its accuracy.

4. Don’t make assumptions; seek data

Hopefully, the assumptions or judgments we make are derived from data or evidence. To help maintain an objective perspective, ask yourself, “What are they assuming?” Once you can understand the assumptions being made, you can ask for the information or data that supports their perspective. Don’t be surprised if the person you are questioning doesn’t have any facts that support their position. It’s also important to perform this same exercise on yourself. When our thinking is devoid of support, then it becomes necessary to question why we think and feel the way we do.

5. Don’t shy away from disagreement; embrace it

Many people avoid conflict of any kind for fear of the outcome. Disagreement should be viewed as the opportunity to explore another perspective. When disagreements occur, lean into those conversations and try to understand by asking questions, exploring different experiences, and surfacing what is important to everyone. You can refocus a conversation where disagreements occur by asking people what you have in common and what your shared purpose is. This helps to lift others above their own perspective to consider a broader view.

6. Don’t push your view to the exclusion of others

If you push your view too forcefully, you will only create more opposition, and this will impact on the quality of difficult conversations.  Push creates pushback. If you are not making any progress with what you are sharing, identify where the resistance is coming from and take the time to explore another’s view. Then ask if they might consider your outlook. If you shift your focus to understanding the naysayers, you will find that they will be much more willing to consider your perspective.

7. Don’t be impatient–take the time you need

Difficult issues or topics take time to explore and understand. Some people just want to make a quick decision so they can move on to the next agenda item, whether that is the best course of action or not. Take time to consider if the decision you are trying to make is the right one given the desired outcomes. The more input that you get from others, the better the learning and solution will be. Productive dialogue or REAL talk takes time because it requires everyone’s contribution. Being patient will pay huge dividends down the road.

8. Don’t let bystanders go unheard–draw people out

Some people do not like to be the focus or centre of attention. So they will sit quietly and say nothing during important discussions. These people may have information that you need. They may also understand an issue and see the big picture better than anyone in the room. Notice who is not participating and invite them to share their thinking and perspective on a tough issue. These people are not to be left out of the conversation.

9. Don’t let appreciation go unexpressed

No matter how difficult some people may be to deal with, it’s imperative to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Thank people for sharing their views even if they do it disrespectfully. The sharing of ideas is what you want to reinforce, not the method of delivery. Look for opportunities to express appreciation to everyone and don’t shy away from thanking people with whom you disagree or may annoy you. Perhaps the appreciation will help validate them to the extent that they may reconsider how they treat others. People tend to reflect the behaviours that others project.

10. Don’t avoid making ground rules that will influence behaviour

The team meeting that I observed could have avoided a number of issues if they had taken the time to determine what ground rules would guide their behaviour and discussion. Take time to develop agreed-upon procedures for discussing tough issues and making decisions. If you do this before the conversation goes awry, you will be poised to manage the conversation’s effectiveness within the outlined parameters.

11. Don’t avoid giving necessary feedback

Sometimes we find it easier to just say nothing when certain people behave badly. You need to assess the cost their behaviour may be having on others and the team’s effectiveness. If you determine that their behaviour is worth discussing, then you need to prepare and hold a conversation that will make them more aware of how they are negatively impacting others and the results that they wish to create.

Taking time to recognize what is not working and deliberately making changes will help individuals and groups to increase their effectiveness. Rather than falling into some of the pitfalls of poor communication, incorporating the tips above not only will help you achieve your objectives but will also help make your conversations work.

John R. Stoker has been immersed in organizational development and change for over 20 years. He is the Founder and President of DialogueWORKS, Inc. In these roles John has worked extensively with a number of companies, helping them increase their capacity to enhance effectiveness and improve results. John is also the author of the popular groundbreaking book Overcoming Fake Talk, which was released in May of 2013.
John has vast experience in designing strategic change and in creating and implementing training curriculum in support of company-wide improvement initiatives. He has worked with numerous organizations as a change management consultant.
DialogueWORKS was founded in 1998 and is headquartered in Springville, Utah, with affiliates throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.