At some point, everyone has to face a difficult conversation. Whether we initiate the conversation, or someone else asks us to have the conversation, the words "We have to talk" always raises our anxiety. I wrote about the 7 questions you should ask yourself before having a difficult conversation, just to be sure you're ready. 

Once you're mentally ready, it's important to maintain your composure so that you can achieve your desired outcomes. 

A CEO client was scheduled to have a difficult conversation with an investor. His demeanor and emotional state during this call was going to significantly impact the outcome, so we worked together to ensure he was 100% ready. 

We role-played dialogues, we brainstormed several scenarios and curve balls that could possibly surprise him during the call, and we created safeguards to ensure he stayed in a strategic rather than reactive state of mind. We also addressed any assumptions or unconscious beliefs that he may have been holding that potentially clouded his ability to be open to all possible outcomes. 

If you have a difficult conversation in your future, here are 6 things you can do prior to and during your call to maintain emotional self-control and stay focused on the end game.

Our emotional responses are like dominoes. They lead to an entirely new set of problems that then require more time, energy, and focus, and often eclipse the initial issue. 

  1. Map out your desired end-state - your goals for the call and the situation. Print them out in large font, and have them directly in front of you so that they drive how you show up on the call. This will help you to replace ego-centric behaviors with outcome-centric behaviors. 
  2. Focus your intention on being collaborative rather than combative. Check yourself before you get on the phone. Is your focus on "I" or "We?" Are you focused only on being right, or are you focused on a mutually beneficial outcome? Do you view the other person as an enemy, or someone with whom you are trying to work?
  3. Listen. Rather than formulating what you are going to say, zero in on what is being said.
  4. Take notes of triggers. Throughout the call, pay attention to concepts or phrases that trigger an emotional reaction in you. Rather than responding, keep a list of the triggers so you can revisit them when the call is over to uncover any patterns.
  5. When appropriate, ask for clarification. "Can you restate that?" "Can you further explain that?" "Help me to understand...." It's OK if you need additional explanations. What matters is that you conclude the call with all of the information you need to plan your next move. 
  6. This is a fact-finding dialogue.  Remember that this call is an exploratory exercise. You are gathering information to make a non-emotional, informed decision. There is no need to commit to anything on this call. You will need time to process the new information. 

Finally, I like to create agendas for all of my meetings and calls. I also don't make any assumptions about what others expect from me in a meeting, or what outcomes others may be expecting in a meeting.

If you feel that the person with whom you will be speaking is open to answering this question, it's a great way to establish collaboration. "What will make this conversation a win for you John?"  Be prepared, however, that they will ask you the same thing, so have your answer ready. 

Difficult conversations arise because people invest a lot of themselves in situations, and they have much at stake. This is all the more reason why it's essential to strategically plan on desired outcomes, and safeguard against emotional, reactionary responses.