“What do I do in a conversation when I am attacked unfairly, or the person opposite me makes uncalled for comments about my appearance or previous behaviours?” “Why can’t people just have a normal conversation? Why do they need to behave so badly?” “Sometimes, at the unfairness of it, I get put out of balance and I just loose it!”

These were some of the questions put to me when I recently agreed to be available for drop-in meetings with some of the staff of an HR department a day prior to a planned team retreat. At the end of the day, I laughed with my sixth and last ‘client’ that it had felt like a speed dating event. I was exhausted. Later, I collapsed in my hotel room and slept for about 3 hours. However, it was an enriching and enlightening experience.

Each person initially came to me for help, but in the course of our conversations they shared with me their best practice ways of handling some very difficult conversations. We learned together and later I was able to share some of their eloquence with a broader group.

Some common themes emerged as they explored best ways to tell someone that the staff medical insurance wouldn’t cover Viagra and other more essential medical drugs or procedures; how to explain why a person’s final salary had still not arrived one year after termination; why despite senior level bullying a recruitment decision could not be done in the time and manner being demanded; how to reconcile the conflict between a manager who views a problem as poor performance and the staff person who sees it as unacceptable workload; and the frustration of an occupational medical advisor desperately wanting to share the lessons learned on mitigating the impact on staff wellbeing from bullying and toxic managers. Whew!!!

Here’s a wrap up of some the great advice emerging from the day:

  1. Be confidently assertive – Have the self-confidence that you have the ability to execute a successful outcome. Fortify yourself, be prepared and concentrate on your presence and demeanor as well as your script. Be polite, accurate and not too familiar.
  2. Enter the conversation with a genuine desire to find a successful mutually beneficial outcome. Anything less than this will flavour your tone and body language. Research tells us that in conflict 90% of the emotion is expressed non-verbally.
  3. Be thoroughly prepared, but don’t rely on a written script. Practice your message out loud. Your access to language is both passive and active. You may understand many more words in your passive comprehension than you might ever use in your production of language- the two activities are even located in different parts of the language centres of the left temporal lobe. (This is even more relevant to non-native speakers) Outline your key points but practice your conversation away from your desk. Go for a walk or talk it out in front of a mirror. Know that you will have access to the critical words in the stress of the moment.
  4. Label your conversation. Use the quintessential oral story telling technique. By this I mean use the template ‘Tell them what you will tell them; tell them, then tell them what you have told them to introduce the conversation: “I have asked to speak to you today because of your outburst in this morning’s meeting.”
  5. Use a non-judgmental, concerned tone. Stay future focused.
  6. With bad news be a short as possible; get to the point quickly. In health and family well-being matters waiting is the worse possible torture.
  7. Focus on what you ‘can’ do rather than what you ‘can’t’ do.
  8. Avoid the urge to justify yourself -Understand the amygdala hijack -this is what triggers you and puts you into fight, flight or freeze. Practice some strategies for staying in your moment – breathe, breathe, breathe. You can acknowledge your emotion, but don’t give into it. Stay detached and professionally cool.
  9. Avoid escalation – Don’t be derailed by attacks or decoys. Acknowledge or deflect then get back on topic. “That may be true; and we can talk about that later. Right now I’d like to get back to the issue at hand.”
  10. Recognise when people need to talk- Sometimes it?s enough to simply listen; you’re not expected to solve problems outside the scope of the conversation or your brief.
  11. Respond in a timely fashion. Phone when you say you will; respond to emails.