How to Have Difficult Business Conversations

"Conversation" by Robert Tea on Flickr.
“Conversation” by Robert Tea on Flickr.

There are some business conversations nobody wants to have.  Especially in the film and photo industry, these become the most necessary discussions.  While difficult business conversations can come about for a wide variety of reasons, there are some key strategies which can help to resolve them.

Avoid Being Dragged Into Difficult Conversations

It can be very easy to slip into a difficult conversation with the result that a challenging situation is made even more complicated.

Many conversations start out amicably but become difficult as conflicts arise and neither party is prepared to walk away until the situation is resolved in their favour.  Stay on the alert for these situations and be prepared to close them down if they occur.

Preparation is Key

Ideally difficult conversations should be held between parties who approach the difficulty in a spirit of co-operation.  In reality, however, this is often far from the case.  The other party may not even think there is an issue and may become defensive and hostile when they realize that their behaviour or opinion is being questioned.

Circumstances will determine whether or not it is appropriate to inform them of the nature of the conversation in advance.  Regardless of this, it is both courteous and helpful to hold the conversation at a place and time where both parties can feel comfortable.  Ideally this should be a neutral location so that neither party feels that their personal or work space is being encroached.

Understand the Desired Outcome

It’s much easier to achieve a goal once it’s been clearly defined.  It may be an old business cliché but Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic Targets are the way to go.

When defining your goal, think seriously about how much room, if any, there is for compromise.  Generally speaking it’s much easier to get someone’s co-operation if they can get at least a part of what they want.

For example if you have an issue with a co-worker being persistently late to a photo shoot and you really need them to be at work, ready to go, by 6AM, then you may ask them to be there at 5.30AM but be prepared to settle for 5.45AM.

It may not sound like a big difference but if your co-worker is not particularly keen on early starts, it may make the difference between a difficult conversation and a huge argument.  By the same token, be clear in your own mind about whether there are any non-negotiable points and be prepared to close down any attempt to discuss them.  The best way to deal with this is simply to say that the specific point is non-negotiable.  It is very dangerous to start giving explanations and justifications as these open the door to counter-arguments.

Create & Practice a Compelling Opening

You need to get the other party’s attention and ideally their co-operation.  The way to go about this is as follows:

  • Establish the context : What is happening and who or what is it affecting?
  • Highlight the consequences : What will happen if nothing changes?
  • Explain your feelings : Be honest but stay calm.
  • Suggest a way forward: Be realistic about this and remember lots of small steps will eventually get you to the same place as one huge step.

This introduction puts your cards on the table and you should then invite the other party to respond.  If the other party’s emotional response is simply too strong to have a meaningful conversation, then it’s time to have a break, however you need to make it clear that the conversation will need to be held at some point, otherwise you risk them using emotional outbursts to put you off dealing with the matter.

Assuming that the other party is prepared to discuss the situation calmly, you need to listen to them at least as much as you talk.  Make the effort to understand their position and focus on the fact that this is a business discussion, not a personal attack on them.

Once you believe an agreement has been reached, make a point of summarizing it and getting agreement from the other party that they also have this understanding of how you will take matters forward in a constructive way.

amyAmy Harris, Marketing Manager for Expert Market, a B2B website, offers you some tips for having difficult business conversations.