7 Tips to Prepare for a Challenging Discussion

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    In the last post we discussed your approach to communicating. We discussed the attitudes and mindsets we bring to our communication efforts, including being patient, sincere, and empathetic when approaching any situation in which we need to communicate effectively. I encouraged you to examine not only your attitude and intentions but also your actual behavior.

    Today, let’s focus on some tips to help you prepare for an important communication event. It might be a performance review, an interview, or an informal capability discussion. It could be a sales presentation or a meeting. Or a problem-solving discussion of any kind. Whatever it is, it calls on you to bring your best in order to make the communication a success.

    Do your research. Make sure you have all the facts ahead of time. Research alternatives and resources so you have all your “ducks in a row” and come off as professional and prepared. This can also save you from having to schedule additional meetings. For example, if you plan to suggest training to correct a performance deficiency, come with a class schedule.

    Understand your audience. Put yourself into their frame of mind; how would you feel if you were in their place? For example, if this is to be a corrective action, they may be nervous or frightened. If it is to resolve a problem, do they understand that you are there to help, or are they afraid of being blamed or shamed? Just yesterday in my tax appointment I came in feeling uncomfortable over a coding error, but was instantly put at ease by my tax professional, who said; “We can fix that; no problem.” Whew!

    Consider timing. Sometimes we jump into a situation where one or both parties are feeling stressed and emotional about the situation, and that makes dealing with it that much more difficult. On the other hand, if we wait too long to address it, we lose momentum, and we keep dealing with the problem instead of correcting it. Try to schedule the sit-down as soon as possible, but when all parties are less stressed. (If you do have to address something on the spot, be sure to take a minute to breathe and center yourself before proceeding; it would be great to allow the other parties the same opportunity.)

    Create a plan. That might mean a few crib notes, an informal agenda, or an outline, but it really helps to write down and use notes to move the discussion forward. Take a moment to discuss the agenda or plan, and ask the other party what they would add, checking to see if you are in agreement on the situation. This helps you be more objective and more focused. Example: “Today I would like us to examine the evaluations from the last technical skills class you facilitated, and together try to discover why this one received lower ratings. It is not about casting blame, but rather, taking an objective look at what was different in this class. Then I would like to brainstorm some ideas about the next session so we can improve our ratings. I value your contributions and your professionalism as a technical trainer, and I want to help you keep growing your skills. Anything you would like to add to our agenda before we begin?”

    Talk their language. Assuming you know the person you are speaking to, speak their language. Use their terms, to mirror their style. If they are known as direct, speak directly without sugar-coating. If they tend to be more emotional, keep creating safety by validating them and reinforcing how you value them. If they are detail-oriented, give plenty of detailed evidence. If they are action-oriented, be ready with a plan of action. In short, adjust your style to match theirs, and you will receive better results.

    Find mental focus. Before you begin, you need a moment to clear your desk, close out your computer tasks, and clear your mind. You might consider allowing 5 minutes to make the transition. Stand up and stretch. Look out the window. Breathe. Imagine how good it will feel to complete this discussion in a productive way. Review your notes if needed. Be ready to give your full attention to the person you are speaking with. OK, feeling ready?

    Rehearse. If the situation is delicate, and the stakes are high, or you are not feeling altogether comfortable about the discussion to come, you will benefit from a rehearsal. Some people do this in the car on their way to an important meeting. Some people rehearse both sides of the discussion so they can predict what the receiver might say. You might even ask someone you trust to role-play the scenario so you can practice different outcomes. Whether you do it alone or with someone else, be sure to rehearse out loud. Rehearsing in your head certainly is better than nothing, but rehearsing out loud makes an amazing difference in your fluency and ability to think on your feet. Just don’t memorize your lines; you want it to be somewhat spontaneous.

    Preparing for an important communication situation takes time and effort that sometimes we feel we don’t have. But the results are so worthwhile; we can solve problems better, build and maintain relationships, and resolve sticky issues. Think of preparation as an investment in creating these better outcomes. Be patient with yourself when things don’t go perfectly. Know that you will become more comfortable and more competent at dealing with challenging communication situations.

    Please let me know which of these suggestions you decide to try. What works for you? What else would you suggest to help others prepare for challenging communication situations?