The Snitch

Just a little of everything HR

Overcoming a difficult discussion

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Don't wrestle out of a difficult conversation

Contributed by  I Wharton Ong

Almost everyone wants to have better communication skills when dealing with difficult discussions, such as those relating to performance, bad news, or calling for actions beyond the call of duty.

How am I going to bring this up? How am I going to break the bad news?

A marketing director of a multinational corporation told me of a time when she asked regional distributors to increase their inventory & business forecasts. Her request did not go well, despite all her preparations and head office support – and she was not sure what the difficulty was.

As she reflected on her experience, she felt confused as the event did not go as she had expected, and helpless as to how to proceed further.

We often forget that whenever we get into a difficult discussion, feelings are inevitably involved: feelings of frustration, arrogance, indifference, anger, helplessness, anxiety etc. In her case, it is likely that the distributors were uncertain they could meet increased forecasts in the current volatile economic climate. They felt fear.

Such frustrating and time consuming outcomes occur not just at professional or business levels, they occur also in our personal lives.

Bosses often issue orders and directives in a vacuum, without making any attempt to understand how the recipients will feel about those orders and directives.

Family “discussions” often play out the same arguments over and over again, with no progress being made towards any solution – because feelings are ignored.

Feelings can be divided into three general types: happy, angry or sad. Happy makes a person feel good. Angry or sad makes a person feel upset or threatened.

When feelings get in the way of discussions, participants “solve” the problem through fright, flight or freeze. None of these is a good solution.

Our most common way of listening is not listening. We prefer to listen to our own talking, instead of other’s talking.

But even when we do listen to others, if we focus exclusively on listening to content, we will tend to miss detecting the feelings of the person speaking. Listening to and for feelings can sometimes make or break a difficult discussion, because feelings are often at the heart of the problem.

Listening to feelings releases them in the speaker. Reflecting the feelings we see and  hear in a difficult discussion helps the speaker shape what is often in disarray and confuses him or her.

A good listener can help the other person “verbalise” the issue that he or she is facing. This helps him or her clarify the issue, and become better able to move ahead with different options. A good listener will hold back on offering advice until he is clear about the other person’s feelings.

Here is a simple example:

Listener: How is work?

Speaker: Stressful and I’m overworked.

Listener: When you stressed, what happens?

Speaker: I am not able to concentrate and I face persistent conflicts with others. This has affected my ability to perform my sales functions effectively.

At this point, the listener must be careful not to hear this response as an announcement of “persistent conflict with others” and “affected my ability to perform my sales functions”. It is in reality a confession of anxiety, and perhaps fear.

The listener now has three options: ignore, confront, or acknowledge and understand.

Ignoring the response will put the other person in the dark as to what to do next. Resentment builds up, and the relationship becomes unauthentic.

Confrontation typically fails to influence the other person to change his or her action. No progress is made towards solving the problem.

The best option is to acknowledge and understand. Say: “I understand that you feel stressed by the situation. How do you think I can help you perform better?”

Remember to use the pronoun “I” often. The “I” messages show that you recognize and are affected by the other person’s feelings. It helps bring the other person on board.

American autobiographer Maya Angelou aptly sums it up: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

William Ury, author of “Getting Past No” and director of the negotiation network at Harvard University, said: “Everyone has a strong need for his or her feelings to be recognized. While factual points are important, knowing the other person’s feelings in a difficult discussion can help to create an atmosphere of understanding and cooperation.”


There is virtually no profession or business in which you are not likely to encounter difficult communication. If we handle a difficult discussion badly, everyone ends up feeling stressed and the relationship deteriorates.

When we make the simple and practical shift to listen for feelings, we change a difficult discussion into a more open and participative way of addressing the challenges we face.

This article is contributed by I.Warton Ong who will be conducting a two-day workshop on @Listen and Connect@ organised by the SIM Professional Development on 6 and 7 May.

Written by Human Resources

April 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Personal career

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