A Guide to the Difficult Conversation

If you’ve been in a communications position long enough, you have had the inevitable difficult conversation. Whether talking with a client, boss, colleague or reporter, these conversations are rarely easy. From the time we are kids, we’re mainly taught to get along with each other. If we disagree, we learn to do so respectfully, or hold our tongue if it’s not worth the fight. And when something is worth fighting for, we learn to disagree with some amount of political correctness. Mostly, we learn to debate with facts, science, and statistics — information that is research-based and centers your argument. We’ve come a long way in the communications industry, and have a variety of research to guide our opinions, which can make disagreements easier. That said, communications is still a lot of art over pure science, so convincing someone of your opinion can be tricky. We’ve learned a few things at Winning Presence over the years. Here are some tips that we use to guide a difficult conversation.

1. Be fact-based, and challenge others in the discussion to be equally rooted in facts. Wherever possible, cite specific examples and  research that can support your opinion. It’s always best to calmly offer some facts that help you disagree credibly. If you don’t have facts at hand, feel free to buy time and get them! In meetings, I am often the first to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll so some research and find out.” Or if I share an opinion that’s simply an opinion, I am quick to qualify my thought as anecdotal or not based on any facts. This approach builds credibility, and helps people know that you’re trying to respond honestly and in everyone’s best interest. We were in a meeting in which several individuals were stating very strong, inflexible opinions about how to structure a new website. They were citing examples of how employees and consumers would use various parts of the site, but their examples weren’t based on any research, and we had a different idea of how to map the site. We challenged the group to seek some facts and reconvene so we could benefit from some research to guide the dialogue and help all of us make a more informed decision. When we reconvened later that month, we ultimately sought a different design. Disagreeing was important and helped us reach a better solution. Challenging the group for facts was a thoughtful way to disagree.

2. Be flexible to think beyond your corner of the sandbox. I find this tip particularly useful when we’re working with colleagues in the legal profession. We do a lot of work with corporate clients, and have the opportunity to work with many skilled, talented lawyers. I find a common thread with this group, however. They often prioritize their point-of-view in debates, and put a stake in the ground, saying “We have to do it this way for legal reasons.” Often when we press the issue, we learn that doing something a certain way might make a court argument easier, but it doesn’t always help the business or brand overall. Many years ago, a client experienced a unionization threat. A local union saw some teenaged employes picketing in front of a restaurant, and the union representatives learned that the kids were protesting some pretty basic issues. They wanted work schedules posted more than a week in advance so they could balance their work with school and activities. They also wanted the opportunity to study in a designated break room on breaks. Sounds simple, right? We advised the restaurant owner to respond to the kids, thank them sincerely for their feedback, and immediately fix the issues because they would be helpful to all employees and create a better work environment. The lawyers disagreed passionately, saying that we couldn’t respond to either of these issues because it would give the union an advantage. I have no doubt that the lawyers were being fact-based and well-intended, but they definitely weren’t looking at the bigger picture. Enter People Magazine, local media and, ultimately, broader coverage that spotlighted what appeared to be our refusal to give employees their schedules. Thinking more flexibly and broadly may have delivered a better solution.

Often in discussions, I offer provocative opinions just to get the conversation moving in more flexible directions. It’s important to listen and think about others’ points-of-view in any challenging conversation. This approach definitely helps you find the middle ground and a better solution.

3. Be tactful. This is good professional and personal advice! We can all disagree, but not be disagreeable. Remain calm and be aware of your non-verbal cues. One of our colleagues makes a very angry face anytime she disagrees with someone. Even if using the right words, this can be distracting in a conversation. Also state your thoughts using proper, professional language. Share positive points first, then offer any constructive thoughts. We were in a meeting with a client and his team, including an office manager. The office manager was interruptive, argumentative, and shared some incorrect information with the team. We needed to set the record straight since she was offering some false ideas about an important topic, but we listened first, then responded tactfully. We cited some facts to help correct her points, but made sure to express gratitude for her passion and good brainstorming. Everyone left the meeting feeling satisfied that the team had listened to each other and addressed a tough issue.

For several decades, a syndicated radio show aired called, “What’s Your Problem.” It featured callers who shared issues and personal challenges. The show was hosted by Bernard Meltzer, who was often in the position to disagree. He said, “If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret to getting along — whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.”

At Winning Presence, we believe that disagreeing effectively involves a great trifecta of tact, sound facts and research, and some flexible thinking. With these three elements, you can successfully have any difficult conversation.

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