In Tough Conversations, Seek to Complete, Not Compete

By Lynne Cunningham, MPA, FACHE

Posted January 06, 2017

At some point, everyone will have a difficult conversation at work. There is just no way around it. Whether giving not-so-positive feedback to an employee, broaching a sensitive issue with a coworker, or even confronting a moody employee, there will come a time to bite the proverbial bullet and just say what needs saying.

Holding a tough conversation is not a task for the timid. There is an art to doing it well (i.e. in a way that doesn’t make the other person cry, explode, or tune out what is said). For those who have not yet mastered that art, focus on this key phrase: Seek to complete, not compete.

People tend to enter tough conversations from a place of competing — dead-set on proving themselves right and the other person wrong. In these cases, the other person will focus on tone and demeanor rather than the message, and this encounter will harm the relationship. Conversations that come from a more positive place, seeking to understand, will go much more smoothly.

When handling difficult conversations, instead of setting up a blame/defensiveness cycle, focus on achieving a win/win outcome. It should not be about punishing, embarrassing, or putting the person ‘in their place.’ Conversations like this will absolutely fail.

These three tips will help you complete, not compete:

  1. Ease into it.

    During difficult conversations, it is wise to ease into the tough topic. Talk about something positive or neutral so that the other person feels at ease and is not immediately defensive. When people feel that they have been “attacked out of nowhere,” they don’t do their best listening or thinking—which will impair efforts to complete the conversation.

    The exception to this rule/tip occurs when managing low performers. Do not start a low performer conversation with a positive because it sends a mixed message about the intent of the conversation. The person will often walk out of the meeting remembering the positive and not focus on the behavior that needs changing.

  2. Say, “Yes, and…” instead of, “Yes, but…”

    Consider this sentence. The but diminishes the compliment with which the sentence started.

    “Suzy, you’re doing a great job learning that new task, but you’d finish more quickly if you changed the sequence of steps a little.”

    Doesn’t this sound more positive?

    “Suzy, you’re doing a great job learning that new task, and I think you’d be even more successful if you change the sequence of steps a little.”
  3. Speak respectfully, especially when disagreeing.

    Trust is essential in navigating difficult conversations. Trust and respect are closely tied, and both are necessary to complete a critical conversation. Hold up the mirror during difficult conversations, and if necessary, adjust to create a safe, respectful environment. It is okay to say something like this: “I hear what you’re saying. I’d like to respectfully disagree with you.”

    These three tips will help to create a safe environment where leaders, employees, and co-workers can talk with almost anyone about almost anything. People will feel safe when they feel cared for and respected. Not coincidentally, respect and care are the raw materials for a vibrant, growth-oriented culture and an incredibly successful company.

Lynne Cunningham, MPA is a healthcare executive and author with more than 40 years of healthcare communications experience. In her book Taking Conversations from Difficult to Doable Lynne explores what happens when we ignore situations that require a tough conversation and how to avoid reaching the tipping point where patient safety is threatened.

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