3 ways to make difficult conversations easier
Over the past few months I’ve been working on a project for cancer services. We’ve been mapping communication to patient experience to find out when the best times are to have difficult conversations and share complex information. We’ve been speaking to people who are living their lives with a potentially deadly disesase, but who are willing, with some personal risk, to help researchers find better treatments for cancer in the future. Doing work with these brave – and generous people – has been a privilege. I’ve learnt three things we can all use – in our personal relationships and in business – to help us make difficult conversations less stressful:
- Self interest
Trust is fundamental. In our work with cancer services we found that a patient’s willingness to engage in a difficult conversation was strengthened and supported by the trust they had in their doctor. Not only that, but trust in a doctor, was really supported by a larger web of trust built up from all the little trustworthy moments patients had experienced all along their patient journey. This greater trust in the NHS allowed patients we spoke to, to be willing to trust their doctors and be open to having difficult conversations.
We can all learn from this. It means that as consultants and coaches, small businesses and contractors, we need to strengthen our reputation and build trust with clients religiously. Trust is not automatic, it is a gift. It comes from demonstrating trustworthiness in every interaction.
- Be reliable – pay attention reliably delivering on the details
- Always do what it says on your tin – deliver on promises
- Delight, don’t disappoint – go the extra mile.
We know that there are good moments and bad moments to have tricky conversations with our loved ones. Getting the timing right for a difficult conversation in business is just as critical. With cancer patients we found a no go zone for difficult conversations – a time to avoid sharing difficult or complex information. Being sensitive not only to your client’s schedule, but also to events and changes in their workload or wider economic or policy environment can make all the difference between success and failure. Figuring out when a client is most approachable and open to discussion and when they are bogged down can make all the difference. Consider:
- daily routine – some people start early or finish late to work quietly and concentrate
- company routine – when are key board meetings or team meetings, do you need to speak before or after?
- business calendar – what events creating stress or opportunity are on the horizon?
We are all driven by self interest – even altruistic types enjoy a boost from their giving. The cancer patients we spoke to wanted to know ‘am I going to be alright’ and this single question filtered everything they could hear: it minimised the bad news and maximised the good. For those of us in business, we know ‘what’s in it for me’ is critical in sales. If we forget it once we have the job or make the sale, it’s always worth remembering that our businesses live or die by the bottom line. So no matter how difficult the conversation you need to have, always remember to present your problem from their perspective. Get into your client’s shoes and engage them in a compelling, value rich conversation. What’s in it for me isn’t just for sales, use it to shape all important communications and be sure to offer value, always.