No matter the strengths of our bonds, challenging social situations can arise among strangers, friends, neighbors and even between close colleagues or family members. These difficult conversations arise from three main causes: goal conflicts, personality issues and power dynamics.
Goal conflicts arise when stakeholders want different things. These conflicting goals may be transparent or hidden, and communication can become difficult when one of the parties is not open about their goals. During important conversations, it is helpful to create a specific and measurable goal and then share it honestly with the other parties. In this way, all parties can decide and express whether or not they are aligned with each other’s goals and the conversation will be streamlined going forward.
Personalities can also affect the difficulty of a conversation. For example, congenial people may be less direct in their communications style in the interest of pleasing people. This can be a positive trait, but when conflict arises it might make communication more difficult as the person may only indirectly allude to arguments or goals. In fact, conflict resolution may be more straightforward with a less naturally congenial person because they will not be afraid to express exactly what is on their mind. However, a congenial person may bring a closeness and familiarity that could make a difficult conversation easier by softening any animosity. There is a spectrum of influence that personality can have on any conversation and there are no hard and fast rules. What is most important is to always be aware of the influence your personality, and that of others, can have on communications and try to maximize its good effects.
The effects that power dynamics have on difficult conversations also fall along a spectrum. Every organization, even one with a horizontal orientation, has power dynamics between those with more or less experience, higher or lower pay, or different job titles. For example, new hires or team members early in their career who are low in the order of power may feel helpless during conflict. In a difficult conversation, this may manifest as their unwillingness to make their voice heard or to ask a key question that could help their understanding or shift the pattern of the conversation. Establishing and maintaining an environment of open and respected communications at all levels of an organization is key to mitigating the difficulties that arise from power dynamics and encouraging a free flow of ideas.
Preparing for a Difficult Situation
If you know beforehand that you are entering a difficult situation, you should plan for it by considering all the themes discussed above. A good plan includes not just the agenda or talking points, but also the goals and measurable outcomes for the conversation. Consider the situation where a regulatory agency representative is meeting with a landowner adjacent to a neighbor who has leased his property for oil and gas development and is concerned about some of the current drilling activities he observes. If the goal of a difficult conversation is to understand the landowner’s biases and concerns, then this should be listed and a strategy put in place by the agency to achieve this goal. The details may include methods to mitigate any disparity in power, such as holding the meeting at a neutral location (neither the regulatory office nor the landowner’s home). The communication strategy might also include a list of questions for discussion to help shed light on the landowner’s goals and objectives for the meeting. A plan should also include some predicted obstacles and possible solutions to avoid developing a difficult situation between landowner and agency, such as changes in style or tone.
Images: “Tangled” by Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY 2.0 ; “Goals” by Tiko Aramyan via Shutterstock; “Personality” by garagestock via Shutterstock; “Weight-scale” by Billion Photos via Shutterstock