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What Are the 3 Types of Difficult Conversations?

In order to learn how to navigate difficult conversations, it’s important to understand the different types.  Here are three types of difficult conversations and examples of each.  

  • Factual: The conversation is based on facts, specific events, numbers or anything that may be measurable.  For some, this type of conversation might be easiest to tackle since they are data driven and have written proof as back-up. During this conversation, you’ll want to avoid assumptions on intent and keep people separate if you need to explore stories from multiple people.  
  • Emotional: These conversations are often related to interpersonal issues, many times on sensitive subjects that are hard to discuss. At the heart of the conversation are always feelings so be sure you understand your own first before jumping into this difficult conversation.
  • Identity-based: Perhaps the most difficult to navigate are those that may challenge a person’s beliefs, self-concept or values.  Understand that these are just as complex as the individuals within the conversation so look at all views in order to keep things productive and moving forward.

What is a difficult conversation at work? 

A difficult conversation at work is a discussion that addresses uncomfortable issues in the workplace.  They may be between colleagues, managers or employees, but should always involve offering a solution to a problem.  If done successfully, these conversations can establish relationships or build upon existing ones, open the lines of communication and support cohesiveness within a business or organization.  They may address negative feedback, performance issues, personal issues, benefits, compensation, raises or promotions.  

What is the third story in difficult conversations?

There are always two sides to every story, right?  But what about the third?  Another concept in the framework for handling the various types of difficult conversations is known as the third story.  There is always the story of the person asking for the conversation, the story of the other party involved, and the third story being that of the perspective gained by the collaboration of the two.  A successful conversation will end in setting measurable goals and reconnecting at a later time to discuss how things are going.  By the end, both parties have had an opportunity to give input, having explored the situation, revealed any underlying issues, and discussed possible solutions.

What is the 10 second rule for difficult conversations?

At this point, you’ve probably read a number of examples on managing difficult conversations.  Although these approaches will help you address the issues at hand while leaving your feelings at the door, there is one important thing many articles don’t discuss and that is, how to turn down the heat when the temperature in the room goes up.  The 10-second rule is simple: when things get heated, take 10-seconds to pause before you respond. 

Engaging in these types of discussions can be challenging, but if you have planned ahead of time, come prepared with facts, and intend on listening to resolve any conflict, you will definitely ensure a smoother, more productive meeting. It may also be helpful to have some phrases for difficult conversations, sentence starters for example, that will set a positive tone and ensure the other person feels valued.  Start with, “I’d like to discuss something important with you,” or “I value our relationship and want to address a concern.”  You may also consider phrases like, “I understand your perspective, but…” or “Can you help me to understand why you feel that way?”

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