Mistakes People Make in Difficult Conversations and How to Overcome Them

Having effective difficult conversations is one of the key differentiators of high performers and world-class organizations.

People want to make their relationships work with their managers, teams, and peers. They want to give feedback that makes a difference, lead people through change, and influence others. They want to bring their ideas and concerns to the table regardless of who is in the room. What’s surprising is that most people lack of skill and ability to step into the difficult conversations they know they need to have.

IHHP has been delivering Emotional Intelligence and Conversation training, coaching, and EI360 assessments for 20 years. We’ve conducted research studies—including a study of 12,000 people we did for our book—and we’ve worked with exceptional people in a wide variety of fields, including the U.S. Marines, surgeons, Olympic athletes, and executives from companies such as IBM, Allstate Marriott, and Goldman Sachs. 

During this time, we’ve identified common mistakes people make in difficult conversations that can be damaging to the relationship and will trigger the other person’s defensive emotions:

  1. Not modelling receiving feedback. According to Albert Einstein, “Modelling is not the main means of influencing people, it’s the only means.” Whether you are getting feedback directly or through a 360-degree assessment, if you want people to respond skillfully to your feedback—even when you don’t do it perfectly—then you should model being on the receiving end.

That’s not easy. Our emotional brains are wired to protect and defend us, so as soon as someone starts telling us something we don’t like, we immediately move to our fight or flight responses—to defend or shut down—which aren’t effective behaviors to demonstrate. If you’ve ever received 360-degree feedback, you’ll probably have experienced an emotional response like this. 

How to overcome this: Check your thinking: Are you assuming the other person has a negative intention (see #2)? Reframe the feedback from a crisis into an opportunity to learn, grow, and build the relationship with the person you are receiving the feedback from (see #3). And take lots of deep breaths!

Learning manage our own emotional responses, and modelling that you can receive feedback yourself is critical if you want people to respond skillfully to you.

  1. Letting your own negative emotions have an impact. If we go into a conversation and we are emotionally triggered or anxious, those emotions immediately will impact the other person and he or she will move into a defensive mode. Emotions are infectious, so you want to enter any conversation with confidence, optimism, and the belief there will be a positive outcome—even if that positive outcome is simply that you said what you needed to say.

How to overcome this: One of the key strategies we teach in our training is “Crisis vs. Opportunity.” We’re all wired to see a pressure situation (like a difficult conversation) as a crisis and start thinking, “This won’t go well,” or “They’re going to get upset,” and “Why bother, they aren’t going to change.” Those kind of thoughts trigger our emotional brain. 

If we can cognitively reappraise the situation as an opportunity and say to ourselves, “I am prepared and can manage the conversation well,” or “I am doing this to help the other person,” or “I will learn from this no matter what the outcome,” that will trigger positive emotions, which increases our own confidence and the positive affect we have on the other person.

  1. Not clearly stating an intention that is positive. We often start a conversation when the other person isn’t clear why we are having the conversation. Without that clarity, the emotional brain of the other person will assume you don’t have a good intention, and he or she will start acting defensively right away.

How to overcome this: By stating a positive intention at the beginning of the conversation, you set the other person’s emotional brain at ease, so he or she can truly listen to the feedback. Examples could include “I am providing this feedback because I believe it will help you be an even better performer,” or “I have news to share and I want to make sure you know how much I value you when this conversation is over.” 

By stating a positive intention for your conversations, you will ensue the other person’s emotional defenses are far less likely to get triggered, allowing his or her cognitive brain to hear and process what you are saying.

  1. Not asking enough questions. People often start conversations with statements that are accusatory or blaming. The emotional brain is triggered by statements like “you did this” or “you should have done that” or even questions that sound like statements such as “what were you thinking?” or “didn’t you think about how this would impact others?”. 

How to overcome this: It’s obvious, but hard to do: Ask lot of questions! When we ask genuine non-judgmental questions, it engages the neo-cortex of the other person (the rational part of his or her brain), causing soothing of the emotional part of the brain. This allows the person to process the feedback, news, or opposing idea without being defensive or closed minded. Example questions could include “What’s your perspective on that?” or “How do you feel things went?” or “What’s this been like for you?”

The other advantage of asking non-judgmental questions is many times people will own up to a mistake or something they did wrong without you even having to bring it up. That way, they end up having the difficult conversation with themselves and you become the coach!

  1. Not saying the Last 8%. When facing a challenging conversation, most people adequately cover the first 92 percent of what they want to cover. When they get to the more difficult part of the conversation—where the other person often starts reacting emotionally by shutting down, blaming, getting defensive, etc.—they avoid the Last 8% of the conversation, which is the part that really needs to be said. What’s missed is the critical information and feedback an individual or organization needs to improve performance, grow, and achieve objectives.

How to overcome this: Before you start the conversation, be clear with yourself about the Last 8% that you need to communicate, even if the other person might not react well (he or she might react well and appreciate your honesty—notice the shift from crisis to opportunity thinking!). Make sure you don’t leave the conversation without saying your Last 8%. You can’t control how another person reacts, but you can ensure you say what needs to be said. 

When we don’t say our Last 8%, it not only leaves us feeling that we have not done our best, it also does a disservice to the other person who needs to hear what we have to say. 

Having effective difficult conversations is one of the key differentiators of high performers and world-class organizations. In our research, it was one of the behaviors most highly correlated with Top 10% performers, and also one of the skills people most admired in their exceptional leaders. While having difficult conversations are not easy, it’s a skill that can be learned and mastered. It’s not just something that helps us at work, it makes a huge difference in our personal lives, too!

If you want to learn more about developing your Emotional Intelligence and having skillful difficult conversations, check out our training

Bill Benjamin is a training and leadership expert at the Institute for Health and Human Potential and a contributor to The New York Times best-selling book, “Performing Under Pressure.” Benjamin speaks on the topics of emotional intelligence and performing under pressure, and is a monthly contributor to CEO Magazine. He works with people in high-pressure environments, including Intel, Goldman Sachs, and the U.S. Marines.


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