How to Have Tough Conversations That Yield Positive Results

construction conflict resolutionAt some point in time, a leader will have to help resolve an undesirable situation. Sometimes it involves an employee or co-worker, and sometimes it involves a client, vendor or other business partner. Whatever the case, great leaders face those uncomfortable situations head-on.

Don Swasing, CEM and COO of site prep firm Schlouch Inc., refers to this as having crucial conversations. He says every crucial conversation has three components:

  • High stakes – The conversation has become necessary to address something of extreme importance, such as a relationship or partnership, contract dispute or other money-related matter, reputation, etc.
  • Conflicting points of view – The parties involved view the situation differently, or at least interpret parts of the situation differently.
  • Can become emotionally charged – Because the crucial conversation revolves around something crucial, there is the potential that things could become emotional, if not heated.

For all of these reasons, many leaders fear the crucial conversation. That could be partially attributable to personality type or the way a person was brought up. Fear is also partially attributable to a belief one has. That belief could be real and based on fact. A belief can also be imagined and based on misconceptions.

Regardless, Swasing says you cannot be a successful leader if you are unable to embrace the concept of crucial conversations. Avoiding them will negatively impact not only your professional life, but also your personal life and overall quality of life.

Consequences of Avoiding Conflict

Swasing says there are several company-crippling consequences if leaders avoid resolving conflicts:

  • Sense of betrayal if it is perceived that the leader is ignoring an issue
  • Loss of productivity due to a weak feedback loop that allows employees to start playing into the drama
  • Overall reduction in employee morale
  • Compromised reputation when employees, customers or vendors view the leader as ineffective

Watch Your Tone and Delivery

Don Swasing, chief operating officer, Schlouch Incorporated

Swasing says a crucial conversation does not need to be synonymous with a confrontational argument.

A highly respected industry veteran, Swasing reflects on the old-school way of handling conflict. More often than not, it resulted in an emotional clash.

“I call it showing your uvula,” Swasing says. “That’s the little thing that hangs in the back of your throat. Back in the day when I was a heavy equipment operator for 15 years, that’s how we resolved problems. Then we shook hands and went back to work. That’s not really appropriate today, and it’s not very good for your blood pressure.”

It is also not very effective. Swasing says a leader can handle crucial conversations in a more constructive way. This approach requires empathy, a little humility, and a lot of planning and preparation.

8 Tips for Handling Crucial Conversations

1. Watch your tone. Data shows that just 10 percent of conflicts are due to a legitimate difference. The other 90 percent can be attributed to the wrong tone of voice. “If you go at someone with a rotten tone, I promise you there will be a reaction,” Swasing says. “Think about what you sound like because, after all, you are trying to resolve an issue.”

2. Take time to prepare. “If I’m going to have a crucial conversation with a customer, I always take the time to prepare,” Swasing says. “The better you prepare, the better you present. I often script my request for the meeting, as well as the conversation itself, based on the person’s anticipated responses.”

Swasing suggests that leaders also prepare to be firm, but fair. “Always maintain focus on the issue without going at them too hard,” Swasing adds. “Remind them of the good things you’ve done in the past to support them, and vice versa. Focus on nothing but the facts.”

3. Use email and text wisely. “If you introduce an issue via text or email and the person says ‘no’ to you, that is on you,” Swasing says. “Emailing and texting is not talking. It’s easy, but it’s not talking. People talk with their mouths.”

4. Commit to it. Put crucial conversations on your calendar. Swasing often handles them on Mondays, if possible. Whatever the case, putting it on the calendar makes you commit to it.

5. Exhibit actions that build trust. Leaders need to show up — on time and well-prepared for the conversation. Leaders can further build trust by always speaking the truth and showing interest in the other individual’s perspective. “Own your side of things that haven’t gone so well,” Swasing adds.

6. Practice active listening. Every good conversation starts with good listening. Don’t storm into the meeting ready to collide with your game face on. “It’s always better to understand than to be understood,” Swasing says. “Good listening takes practice.”

7. Be willing to compromise. Remember, compromise is not an act of weakness. “Compromise is an act of strength and professionalism,” Swasing says. Compromise demonstrates that you care for something beyond yourself. If nobody wins, nobody wins. In fact, you lose.

8. Create mutual understanding. Focus on what really matters — and identify mutual interest around it. Don’t lock into one way to resolve the issue. You might not get everything you want, but that’s OK.

“I always like to leave an out,” Swasing relates. For instance, maybe the client can’t give you everything you want, but you can get enough — for now — to resolve the issue and keep moving forward. “If you simply go in and back the client into a corner, it’s going to be a problem,” Swasing warns. “And the higher the stakes, the bigger the problem.”

And the higher the stakes, the more crucial it is to stop avoiding crucial conversations.

This article is based on a presentation given by Don Swasing, CEM, at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020. Swasing is the COO of Schlouch Inc., a Pennsylvania-based site preparation company serving a variety of commercial, industrial, residential, public and energy sector clients.

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