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How to have difficult conversations

by team Holly & Co

 

As advocates for small business, we are surrounded by an f-word: “Feedback”. If it’s not feedback, it’s the other one…“Fear”. But do those two entities really need to ‘facilitate’ each other? We had an enriching conversation with our resident coach and business psychologist, Kate, and the good news is she shed some light on it for us. So, take a deep breath; because the answer is…no. 

You know that situation, we all do — when something ‘off’ has occurred and you know in your gut and your heart what needs to be said but it just seems too hard. Or unkind. Or awkward. You don’t want to fall out with the person or diminish their confidence in any way, and you certainly don’t want them to confront you, so you try to let it go…

But it’s then left unresolved isn’t it? And they do it again. Of course they do because they don’t know not to. Similarly, it’s often just as tricky when it happens to us. If we get a negative review or are discussing pricing, for example, and it’s not been sensitively handled, it can affect us tremendously. So how do we learn to have those difficult conversations well? How can we move things forward in a proactive manner and iron out differences of opinion in a better way, and encourage others to do the same? Well the good news is, it’s actually quite straightforward. 

First things first: remember that feedback is important

There’s a great phrase that says ‘Don’t seek praise, seek criticism’. Why? Because you learn more from it. Feedback is so important, and it doesn’t always need to be positive. It helps us develop. It gives us clear direction so we know what’s expected of us, it sets a standard and has been proven to help improve engagement. And do ‘difficult conversations’ really need to be…difficult? Well the good news is that in many ways, you’ve actually already done the hardest bit; you’ve founded your own business. You’ve created great products or services, sorted out the numbers and worked the long hours. Now that takes bravery. Compared to that, this is probably quite easy.

The Harvard Business Review found that the more you listen, the better employees think you are at giving feedback¹. And this may well be true for others, too. Having difficult conversations well just takes practice. So here are some techniques to help…

How can we move things forward in a proactive manner and iron out differences of opinion in a better way, and encourage others to do the same? Well the good news is, it’s actually quite straightforward.

Make your intention clear, avoid apologies and do it quickly

It can feel uncomfortable to broach a subject we don’t really want to, but it doesn’t need to come with a side order of apology. It is perfectly reasonable to set out expectations with your team or let your distributors know that inflation isn’t just on the news, it’s affecting you too. So as soon as you’ve opened your laptop, picked up the phone, or taken a seat, kick off immediately with the headlines: outline your intention. It softens the sting for the recipient whilst giving them the space to process and prepare themselves for what’s to follow. Plus then you’ve got the hardest part out the way.

Try and take the emotion out

Difficult conversations can so often feel like they’re loaded with emotion but as soon as we remove that from our narrative, it becomes easier. Besides, it’s rarely as bad as you think. If your customer has received the wrong order, are they really blaming you, the founder, or do they just want to vent? Remember, it’s unlikely to be personal. They just need a problem solved. You’ve created something wonderful enough to attract them to shop with you in the first place, but somewhere along the line a mistake has been made. Reframe it. Rather than it being a difficult conversation, could it actually be an opportunity to show how terrific you are at fixing a problem whilst solidifying loyalty? It’s how you deal with the conversation that will matter. 

Remember that feedback is just an opinion

A cold chill runs down our spine and our fears are realised — we’re not good enough, we’re rejected and no one likes our product or brand, or the way we do things. It can be hugely triggering and that feedback will follow us to the bathroom, to the breakfast table, whilst we’re waiting for the car to be MOTed — it is all we can think about. Take. A. Breath. It is their opinion, it isn’t fact. Our temptation when we feel vulnerable is to catastrophize or exaggerate. Put it in its rightful place and deal with it that way. It’s much easier and will use up a lot less energy.

Take some space to consider it

If the difficult conversation is aimed at you, try and assess what the person is looking for and what their intention is. As soon as you ask yourself what they need from this conversation, you are free to engage. The same can be said if we are the one giving the feedback. Providing examples can really help someone understand the purpose of the conversation and suspend blame. Having time and space to think about the issue can really help put it in perspective too, so where possible, factor this in. 

Try the +EBI technique

Our resident coach and business psychologist Kate suggests that the easiest way to enable us all to hear and connect with others is to use the +EBI technique (Plus, Even Better If). If you want to bring up a difficult subject, the words you use to convey it will be pivotal. Try highlighting their ‘plus’ points and then following with, it would be ‘even better if’. The accusation has been eliminated and it provides something tangible to connect to. Plus people are more likely to want to help you, or you’re more likely to arrive at an agreeable solution, if neither of you feel attacked in any way.

Of course, the really tricky part of having difficult conversations can be instigating them in the first place. It is all too easy to succumb to avoidance and ignore your gut feeling, but this rarely helps. It is a recurring theme in our co-mmunity that listening to your gut should always win. So remember these techniques, take a deep breath, remain calm and go for it! The quicker you take action, the quicker the situation can be resolved. 

Our resident coach and business psychologist Kate suggests that the easiest way to enable us all to hear and connect with others is to use the +EBI technique (Plus, Even Better If). If you want to bring up a difficult subject, the words you use to convey it will be pivotal.

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