How to have ‘difficult’ conversations: top tips from a mediator

When I work as a mediator, in effect what I’m doing is facilitating a difficult conversation between two people who want to improve their relationship. Usually by the time people come to mediation the relationship has reached a point where it’s getting in the way of being able to work together. Very often, I hear how distressing the situation has become for those involved; causing impacts that ripple far beyond the workplace. And sadly, the situation has often been going on for quite a while before it has been addressed. 

Only a small percentage of professional relationships end up in mediation, but I know from my wider experience that relationship tensions at work are widespread and can be very stressful and disruptive. Many people tell me they lack the skills and tools to tackle difficult conversations when they first arise – often waiting until things have become far more serious before action is taken to resolve the problem. So whilst mediation has a valuable role to play, far better we develop our skills to be able to have difficult conversations more effectively and readily.

When we need to have conversations about a problem or a concern, then I find the following principles help us to do so constructively – ensuring we tackle and resolve the issue, without damaging the relationship:

Avoid blame and be constructive – start from position of wanting to improve the situation or avoid the problem arising again by understanding what’s happened and why. Blame isn’t helpful – it tends to lead only to defensiveness and conflict rather than resolution. Be careful the language you used doesn’t imply blame and sound critical – try and stick to describing the facts objectively.

Avoid jumping to conclusions – there’s usually a fair amount of misunderstanding or lack of awareness at play in most disagreements or problems. It’s important to keep an open mind about what has happened and why – try and establish the facts and be open to you having things to learn as well as the other party. Also it’s important to share information – that includes the impact of problem is on you. That’s not about blaming or shaming – but sharing information about consequences of an action or behaviour, you might be surprised how often people are simply not aware their behaviour is causing issues for others.

Respect autonomy – nobody likes to be told what to do, however most of us are very reasonable if faced with a clear request and we understand why we are being asked. Demands, orders, emotional blackmail are less effective (and frankly who wants to treat another person like that?). It’s important to respect autonomy in terms of how these conversations happen too – don’t just pounce on someone, suggest instead you’d like a chat about a specific topic and then ask when and where would be a good time for them?

Be clear – be prepared to be very clear and specific about what you are asking the other person to do less of/ more of or differently – as if you are writing a stage direction, as often misunderstandings about what’s expected can arise when things are less too general. 

With these principles in mind, you might like to try a 3-step process along these lines:

  1. Open up: state your intention and ask permission to proceed
  2. Explore: discuss and uncover the issues, keeping an open mind, looking for solutions
  3. Agree Actions: that each of you will take, and how you will follow-up if necessary

Some examples of ‘openers

“I don’t think that either of us is completely happy with how this is going at the moment – I’d like us to work together to work out what’s not working and identify a way forward… is that something we could focus on today in our meeting?” 

“I’m concerned we aren’t delivering at the level that we need to and we need to do something about that… Can we talk about this – when would suit you?” 

Some examples of ‘exploring

“How are you feeling about how things are going?”

“What would you like me to do differently? Is there anything I could do more of, or less of, that would help you?” 

“What questions do you think we need to be asking to get to the bottom of this?”

“What suggestions and ideas do you have about how to sort this out?”

Some examples of ‘agreeing actions

“What actions do you think I need to take, and what do you think needs to come from you?” 

“So, having thought it through together, what actions are you proposing?” 

“What will we need to put in place, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?” 

“I think it would be helpful if we jotted down the key things we’ve agreed will happen, are you happy to do that in an email?”

Finally, if you’re interested in healthy relationships watch out for the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse – sounds bad doesn’t it, and it is! According to relationship experts the Gottman Institute there are 4 main ways in which our relationships become toxic – know the signs and spot them – then act quickly. 

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