I admit it. I spend most of my days researching, writing about, and speaking about positive aspects of leadership--how to properly recognize and show appreciation to people. I write a lot about how to inspire and motivate people to become their best. And, I talk a ton about building better relationships. But part of building better relationships with people is having tough conversations.

"I don't sleep at night," a former coworker told me. "I know I need to have a talk with one of my employees, but the thought of it makes me feel sick to my stomach...because I really like the guy and have worked with him a long time."

As leaders, most of us earned our roles not because we were necessarily good at leading people, but instead because we were good at our job, or our skill. And often times, that means a promotion can move a person overnight from one day being a colleague, to the next day being a supervisor. Yes, that can be uncomfortable. 

How can you make uncomfortable conversations more comfortable? Here are five tips you should learn. If you learn them well, you might be able to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

1. Sleep on it.

Although a tough conversation may keep you awake at night, it's important that you let your anxiety play out in your mind.

"Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision-but don't try to analyze the information," wrote Dutch Social Psychologist, AP Dijksterhuis, in a paper published in Science. "Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it for a day or two. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice."

In other words: Listen to your gut and your unconscious for a few days before striking up the conversation.

2. Remove emotion from the moment, but not your words. 

In a heated moment it's difficult to refrain from saying things we don't mean. While conversations focused on business negotiations or transactions should remain entirely dispassionate, other conversations deserve to focus on emotion.

For example, "I feel like I'm taken for granted," or "I often feel overlooked," are fair statements that communicate emotion without necessarily getting emotional during the conversation. Plan your words wisely before you approach the conversation. 

3. Don't assume the worst. 

We're all human, and that's the reason you're anxious about confronting another person--because it's natural to assume the worst-case scenario outcome.

"I recently had a tough conversation with an employee that I thought would be our last conversation," Amy, a district retail manager, told me after hearing me speak at a recent conference. "It turns out it was just a simple miscommunication. The employee actually felt much better after the conversation and we've had many open conversations since then."

If you're headed toward a tough conversation, it's important to think about, and plan for, the positive outcomes you could create as well. Keep the good thoughts flowing. You want positive change. 

4. Separate the person from the situation. 

Just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean you don't like them. And just because someone aligns with your philosophies doesn't mean you like their character.

"I have a business partner that I trust and I love hanging out with him, but we disagree on everything business," Carlos, the owner of a car dealership told me years ago when I worked at an automotive advertising agency. At first, Carlos told me he would get angry at his partner. He even wondered if he hated him. But after seven years Carlos realized that their disagreements actually led them to find better solutions.

Learn to separate the way you feel about people from the way you feel about situations.

5. Fix yourself first. 

I am often contacted by leaders who are struggling with employees or by people who are struggling with coworkers. They want to know how to fix the other person. And I always ask the same two questions, "What do you appreciate about them?" and "Have you recognized them for it?"

Research shows that when employees are asked what one thing their leaders could do to inspire great work, the number one response--well beyond pay me more and give me a promotion--is "recognize me." All people entering tough conversations want to know they are valued and they want to know why they are valued.

Uncomfortable conversations are never easy. But they can be made easier. Try these five tips. And, if you have any other tips, I'd love to hear them.   

Published on: Jan 17, 2018