Difficult conversations – we’ve all had them!  Perhaps it’s giving feedback on poor performance to a junior colleague, a tough fee negotiation, delivering bad news to a client, saying no to your boss.  How many difficult conversations don’t happen at all, or at least not as soon as they should.  Instead, they’re often put off until absolutely necessary or we hope that the problem will somehow magically resolve itself.  Although, those thorny issues rarely go away, do they?  Often, they get worse!

What sort of difficult conversations are we talking about?  They’re the ones that usually make us feel apprehensive, uncomfortable … often they are referred to as ‘courageous conversations’ as they usually require some courage to have the conversation in the first place.

So, what makes them so tricky?  In most cases it’s not the content of the conversation – that’s usually the ‘known’.  It’s the ‘unknown’ that makes it so hard.  How will the other person react?  How will you then deal with their reaction, their response to the message you want to deliver.  It’s emotions and feelings that then drive behaviour – both theirs and yours.

It’s often the fear of these unknown emotions that make us put off the conversation entirely or to try to control the situation to somehow prevent a ‘bad’ outcome.  We might overthink the situation, often deciding for ourselves how the other person is going to react; anticipating that can push us to try to control the conversation so that emotions are kept in check.  Often this means the other person doesn’t get a chance to join in at all – it all becomes very one-sided!

So how can we be more intelligent and effective in these tricky situations, how can we be Emotionally Intelligent?

What is Emotional Intelligence?  One of my favourite definitions is simply ‘being intelligent about emotions’.  Traditional intelligence (IQ) means understanding a problem and using that understanding to work things out, to provide a solution.  Emotional intelligence (EQ) means understanding emotions and feelings (yours and others) and using this understanding to manage behaviour.

Why does EQ matter?  Well, understanding your emotions helps you understand how you feel about a situation more fully, understanding your feelings and what drives them. Not bottling them up can have a positive effect on your well-being, productivity and importantly your relationships.

Developing your EQ takes effort and practice and time.  Maybe it’s already part of your mindset.  If not, here are some quick tips if you have a difficult conversation coming up.

  1. Notice what you’re feeling.  You might feel worried or anxious, and you might have physical manifestations of this – an uneasy feeling in your stomach, perhaps or a tightness in your shoulders.
  2. Label it – get better at interpreting what the feeling is signalling – acknowledge that you are nervous or worried perhaps.
  3. Reframe – can you reframe that interpretation? Nerves create the same physical response in our body as excitement.  Can you anticipate a positive outcome and focus on that?  Or at least can you focus how much better things will be when the situation has been dealt with which might put you in a more positive frame of mind.
  4. Prepare – perhaps you’ve had a bad experience in the past and you are assuming the same thing will happen again. What else can you do to change your negative attitude?  Prepare well to increase your confidence.
  5. Empathy – try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This means actively listening to the other person and letting them know that you have heard them.  This doesn’t mean you have to change your message but working on your empathy will help you express yourself more clearly and importantly more effectively.

We are all human – emotions and feeling are an important part of who we are – building your emotional intelligence and awareness will help you next time you have one of those courageous conversations.  Good luck!

Nicky Clough presents Managing Difficult Situations Assertively on 27th September 12.30-1.30.