Tough conversations, we have all had to have them and unfortunately most times they don’t go as we wished or planned. So, what should we do before having these conversations to ensure the best outcome for all parties? Helene Vermaak, Business Director at corporate cultural experts The Human Edge, says, “How we manage these moments can impact every part of our personal and professional lives. And, unfortunately when it matters the most we tend to do our worst in these situations.”

Vermaak says that the most important basis for any crucial conversation is to establish an environment of psychological safety. We all view psychological safety as a pre-condition for speaking up and holding others accountable. If we feel comfortable in our environment we are more likely to ask others for help, admit errors, and discuss problems.

Preparation is key for a crucial conversation to go well and Vermaak highlights four points that Joseph Grenny, cofounder of VitalSmarts, The Human Edge’s US partner, recently suggested in an article for Harvard Business Review. He says that by doing these you improve the odds dramatically that your tough conversation will go well.

  • Get your motives right – under conditions of stress and threat, our motives become short-term and selfish. We worry about whether others will like us, whether we’ll look good, be right, win, or avoid conflict. The problem with short-term motives is that they preserve the present by mortgaging the future. But under conditions of stress and threat, I think escape, not long-term.

    The first thing to do when preparing for a crucial conversation is to reset your motives. You can radically change your motives by thoughtfully answering a simple question: What do I really want? I find it helpful to answer it at four levels: What do I really want for me? For the other person? For the relationship? For other stakeholders? By simply connecting to these motives your affect may be changed as you approach the conversation.

  • Get your emotions right – unhelpful emotions are another second barrier to a productive conversation. We often come in angry, scared, hurt, or defensive. Surprisingly, our emotions have less to do with what the other person is doing, and more to do with the story we tell ourselves about what they are doing.

    This is when we typically tell ourselves the victim and villain The victim story helps us absolve ourselves of responsibility for the problem at hand, while the victim story makes us out to be innocent sufferers in the predicament. A villain story helps us justify any negative action we take toward the other by attributing evil or malicious motives to them. We make the other person out to be deserving of suffering.

    Recognise and challenge the stories you tell yourself. Turn yourself from a victim to an actor. Turn the other person from a villain to a human. Ask yourself, What am I pretending not to know about my role in this? and “Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what he’s doing?”

  • Gather the facts – by definition, we enter a crucial conversation with opposing views. Often, the conversation degenerates into contesting conclusions rather than shared information. I say what I think. You say what you think. Rinse and repeat. Don’t start a crucial conversation by sharing your conclusion. Share the facts and premises that led you to your conclusion. Lay out your data. Explain the logic you used to arrive where you did. Gathering the facts is required homework for a healthy conversation.
  • Get curious – the most important attitude to bring to a crucial conversation is a blend of confidence and curiosity. I need to have thought through my position enough to have confidence that it has merit. And I need to muster enough humility to be interested in any facts or logic that might improve my conclusion. Many people resist curiosity because they think it weakens them. In fact, it does the opposite. It makes you more persuasive.

Grenny concludes, “Crucial conversations are 60% getting your head, heart, and gut right, and 40% saying it right.”