Making Difficult Conversations Less Difficult

Woman sitting on a bench thinking and holding a dog on leash.As positive reinforcement-based dog professionals, we tend to care deeply about others’ feelings, and naturally dislike conflict. For many of us, just the thought of a difficult conversation makes our stomach turn. But take heart when faced with one. It means you’ve made a decision to improve something in your situation. Hold on to that thought as you prepare.

Difficult conversations come in many forms, from everyday business communications like the sales moment at the end of an initial consultation or meet-and-greet, to dreaded conversations such as letting a client or an employee go, and everything in between. Whatever the situation, a little preparation can provide big payoffs in your confidence and comfort level, as well as the outcome.

Here are some steps to help you plan and prepare – and hopefully take some of the discomfort out of the situation.

Determine your desired outcome
Having a clear picture of your goal – what you want the outcome of your conversation to be – will help you create a plan.

Start by asking yourself a few questions pertinent to the situation. For example, is there only one acceptable outcome? If your goal is to end a relationship with a client, period, end of story, there is only one outcome. But would you consider another result? Let’s say the client promises to abide by your cancellation policy, would you accept that and continue offering your services? Or if an employee admits she hasn’t been doing her best work but is committed to doing better, are you willing to give it another go?

Also consider whether you’re willing to provide any support. If you’re cutting ties with a client, will you provide a referral to another dog pro who can help her? Are you willing to give the employee a recommendation for another job?

Setting your parameters ahead will help you stand firm in the moment, preventing temptation to give into pressure if you’re asked to reconsider your decision, and making sure you arrive at your intended outcome.

Choose your mode of delivery
With so many means of communicating these days, it’s important to think through the best mode for delivering your news.

How do you typically communicate with the person you plan to reach out to? If it’s someone you see regularly, and you’re both used to meeting face to face, this might be the best option. If you rarely see each other, a different mode might work just as well to achieve your outcome.

In many cases, a well-crafted email provides a professional delivery method for your message while serving as a nice buffer, giving the recipient some time to think and digest before responding.

A phone call or face-to-face meeting is the most personal way to have a conversation, but it does leave open the possibility of an uncomfortable exchange. If you decide to have a personal conversation, it will help to practice what you’ll say. More about that in a moment.

While sending a text message may feel most appealing, ask yourself whether the information you need to convey is likely to be well received via a text message. If you’ve ever consoled a friend who has been dumped via text message, you know it doesn’t feel good – nor does it typically provide closure. Texts also invite an immediate response, which could mean receiving a flustered or angry one.

If you’re unsure which communication mode is best, try imagining the conversation in each mode. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes to imagine how it might feel to receive the news over the different mediums, and also consider what mode of response will be most comfortable for you to digest.

While we do live in the age of instant communication, remember that you’re representing your business – whether as a service provider or an employer – so ultimately you want to choose a mode that is comfortable and appropriate for both parties, and that enables you to present yourself professionally.

Choose your words
What are the first words that come to your mind when you imagine the conversation? Write these down, say them out loud, then pause! Chances are your patience is already spread thin by whatever issue has necessitated the conversation, so these first words may not be the most positive. That’s okay. You’re just planning right now, so let yourself have those thoughts. There’s almost always emotion tied in when we’re facing a difficult conversation, so this step may be cathartic – just what you need to move forward with a clearer mind. Don’t you feel better already?

Now think back to the desired outcome you identified earlier. First, what are the most concise words you can use to communicate and achieve that outcome? Next, think about how can you frame your words to apply empathy and kindness while making your point clear enough to achieve your goal.

Include language that communicates the ‘why’ behind your decision. Lack of understanding is often the culprit when conversations don’t go as we’d hoped. If possible, share some common ground. For example, if you’re letting go of a dog who is stressed in your group walks, talk about your common goal of giving Fido a healthy and fun outlet for his energy, then share why you feel group walks aren’t working for Fido. If you’re dealing with a client who isn’t following the training plans you’ve provided, remind them of your mutual goals for Buddy, and that you’re unable to accomplish them without their commitment. Drawing on shared thoughts, feelings, and goals can help you communicate from a place of mutual understanding, making the rough news easier to hear.

Practice it
If you decided to communicate in writing, give yourself some focused time to draft and edit your text. Have someone else read it, too, to ensure that the words clearly express the outcome you’re aiming for.

If your conversation will be in person or by phone, think through how it might go. Do some brainstorming with a trusted friend or colleague. Imagine potential questions or push-back that could come up during the conversation. While you’re unlikely to imagine every way a conversation might go, simply exploring the possibilities in advance will better prepare you for what might happen – and help your thoughts stay more organized in the moment.

Once you’ve crafted some language you’re comfortable with, take some time to practice saying it. Stand in front of the mirror, or videotape yourself. Or better yet, do some role play with a friend. It will likely feel awkward at first, which is precisely why it’s good to practice! The more comfortable you are in the actual conversation, the more likely you’ll achieve your desired outcome.

If the conversation you’re preparing for is one you anticipate might cause the other person to become upset or angry, remember there will be two sides – be sure to practice beyond just what you plan to say, imagining and responding to potential responses. Don’t fret this step too much, if you practice a few scenarios, you’ll likely feel more confident handling whatever direction the conversation takes.

And remember, both while practicing and during the real conversation, pause and think about your words before you say them.

Deliver the news with confidence
Most of us got into this business because we care deeply about dogs and their well-being. We use positive reinforcement-based principles to develop relationships built on trust and mutual understanding. We also tend to care a great deal for the people, and with a little planning we can apply the same principles to our difficult conversations. Whether it’s with a client, a staff member, or a business partner, we can achieve our desired outcome with grace and minimal discomfort for everyone involved.

When the time comes to deliver the difficult news, whether you decide to have the conversation in person or in writing, set the tone. You are a professional representing your business. Remind yourself what’s in it for you – the ‘why’ behind your decision and how the outcome will improve your situation.

While these types of conversations are rarely fun, taking some time to plan and prepare can help you deliver difficult news like the pro you are!