How to have a difficult conversation

Follow these 7 steps from Augustana alumna and former instructor Kristan Cummings, and it's less likely to end badly.

Tia Lalani - 16 July 2019

By Karen Sherlock

Illustration by Ryan Garci

You know those difficult conversations you tend to avoid? Whether with your boss, your coworkers or your teenager, you'd much rather sidestep the problem and hope it resolves itself, which, let's admit, rarely works.

Well, Kristen Cumming, '09 BA (Augustana), has keys you can use to unlock those tough conversations. The business consultant and founder of Cantos Performance Management has taught these techniques at conferences and to organizations of all types and sizes.

"Conflict doesn't have to be bad. Our ability to manage it well is one of the keys to unlocking really remarkable possibilities," says Cumming. In fact, she says, it's often high-performance environments that are prone to conflict. Why? "Because people really care, and if people care, the potential for conflict rises."

Next time, she says, make the most of those tricky conversations.

1: Confront your own assumptions and judgments. Before the conversation, identify the observable, objective, irrefutable facts, rather than your assessment of those facts. Look for the shared reality. "You've been late five times in the last two weeks," rather than "You don't care about your work."

2: Ask yourself if you are initiating this discussion to be of service. Cumming likens it to a question asked by parenting author Barbara Coloroso: "Am I trying to get someone into trouble or out of trouble?" Let go of the emotions or the sense of injustice you have around the topic and the solution will be easier.

3: Be prepared to go the distance.

Go in ready to spend whatever time it takes and to open up any underlying topics. "That changes the whole tone of the conversation and will change the outcome," Cumming says. After all, you may be missing the context you require to find resolution.

4: Stay focused during the conversation. Get consensus on the situation you're addressing. State the objective: "I'd like to figure out a solution to you coming in late." Make sure you don't put the other person in the wrong. Be curious and ask questions. Brainstorm solutions and actions. The goal is to find a solution that works for both of you. Listen first and contribute second on this step, says Cumming. "So often we go in with predetermined answers."

5: Take action: it doesn't end when it ends. Agree on which action to take first. Document your intent after the conversation, track what happens and follow up with the other person in an agreed amount of time to make sure it's working. "That builds trust, which reduces conflict," Cumming says.

6: Make note: a red face is not an action. Don't judge your counterpart's reaction to the conversation. People's adrenaline goes up and we all have different reactions: pacing, turning red, being defensive, crying. "You don't have to react to that," Cumming says. "Stick to your objectives." It's the outcome of the conversation and the actions that you both take afterward that are important.

7: Blame not, lest your problem go unsolved. "Blame has not solved a problem yet," Cumming says. "Figuring out who's wrong doesn't solve the problem." It's much more effective to go in with a curious mindset that's focused on finding a solution and moving forward.

This story originally appeared in New Trail.