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Difficult conversations require your head and your heart

4 min read


Leaders have to become increasingly more skilled at having difficult conversations with others as they take on more responsibility. Greater numbers of people might be relying on them to lead, which often entails tricky situations and tough discussions. The most approachable leaders become a hub for conversations with their staff, their peers, their manager and other stakeholders.

Yet many leaders don’t have the heart for tough conversations; are you one? If so, you might learn the mechanics of stepping into the dialog but neglect all things that can go on in your head about what will take place.

  • You might overthink the situation and get nervous about it. Dress rehearsals are fine for thinking through what you will say, but they aren’t the actual event. Just as an actor, as you think about what you will say, you might get nervous about remembering your lines. When the actual “performance” happens, you can go blank or let your emotions overwhelm you.
  • You discover you can’t control the other person. So even though you might have rehearsed the words you want to say, when the conversation actually happens in real time, it’s either stilted or nothing like you imagined in your (one-way) rehearsal. It takes two to dialog; even though you have your part down pat, you can’t predict the other person’s reactions in real time. A contingency plan isn’t available when the two-way interaction doesn’t go the way you’d planned.

The problem is that you’ve spent all of this time in your head thinking about the conversation, and it shows. The person you need to have the difficult conversation with sees right through it, and lots of peculiar things can happen. Thinking it through is a great thing, but you also need to be able to go with the flow of the conversation rather than trying to control it.

Have you ever heard “I’m going to have a head-to-head conversation”? Of course not, but this is what often happens in our organizations. Having a “heart-to-heart” conversation is what’s most important when the topic is difficult. The words you will say aren’t enough (those come from your head); you need to also have an open heart.

Remember that the actual conversation is only the tip of the iceberg; there are lots of emotions going on below the surface (words being said). Here are some thoughts on how to make your tough conversations more than a head game.

  • Remember that this is about them, too: The heart-to-heart conversation is something that you both have a stake in; it’s not only about you.
  • Try empathy: While you’re thinking about the words you’ll say, consider how the other person might feel. Open your heart, and try to see yourself from the other person’s vantage point.
  • Start with a question: What would you like to ask the other person? Starting with a question that begins with the other person in mind can let the person know you care and puts the emphasis on that person. This can be a much calmer way to start rather than blurting out your side of it, creating defensiveness.
  • Listen to understand: Listen more than you talk. If your emotions are causing your brain to chatter in a way that takes you away from listening, take a deep breath and return to your focus of listening to understand.
  • Allow the conversation to flow: Don’t try to control it. Stay calm, listen, ask questions and gently get your points across.

Difficult conversations are best accomplished with your head and your heart. If you aren’t “openhearted,” they can have a life of their own, and often one that isn’t pleasant.