Select the right words. Say them well.


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Everyone has one from time to time. The chat with an underperforming employee. Addressing a conflict that seems ready to boil over. Sorting out a client relationship which is going sour. No matter the specifics, here are some keys to make that tough talk go more smoothly.

Make a plan: Never launch into one of these conversations unannounced. Both sides should know we are having ‘a talk’ at a specific time in the not-too-distant future. Once the time is set, plan how you will handle the issues needing to be addressed. Try to anticipate responses you might hear and carefully think about how the most difficult items can be handled.

Listen: It’s not all about what you say. It is also about taking time to listen and letting the other person know they will be heard during the exchange. Many times a conflict can be handled just by the other party knowing they are being heard. Research shows, for example, patients are far less likely to sue in a clear case of a practitioner malpractice if the patient feels their concerns have been acknowledged. Want to avoid a court case? Sharpen your listening skills!

Stay cool: Your credibility in this situation is directly connected to your ability to remain calm. No matter what transpires during the talk, your game plan has to include how you will handle circumstances that could cause you to become upset. Especially when you are the instigator of the conversation, you will be judged on how you say something, not just what you say.

Connect it to their future: Trying to get an employee to do the right thing? Don’t make it just about the here-and-now. During a recent tough talk I had to deliver, I focused on how this change would benefit the person in the long term, over the course of their career. Suddenly, they didn’t see it as just about the immediate issue, but how change would pay dividends in the long run.

Offer a clear roadmap: No matter what side of the conversation you find yourself, be ready to offer a way forward. People are more likely to agree with someone who has a plan. Just saying you want your way isn’t usually much of an option for the other person. Instead, show your ability to understand both sides and you’ll have a much better chance of getting at least some of what you want.

I don’t know if you feel like there is more conflict in the world these days or if it’s just me, but I know if we handle our disagreements well, everyone benefits. My wish for you is a peaceful holiday season, and perhaps these tips can help get you there.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication.

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