Top Tips from Skilful Conversation

Managing Difficult Conversations – How to become your own advocate in 2020

6th January 2020, 3:28 pm

Have you been avoiding a difficult conversation?  Are you holding back from speaking up for yourself or others? Or never find the right time to ask for that pay rise, promotion, or feedback?  Sometimes it seems easier to keep quiet, or we shy away from what we think might end up as a confrontation.  So we get in our own way, and limit what we could otherwise achieve.  These tips combine some lessons from the courtroom, mostly learned the hard way during my career as a barrister, with what I’ve learned about people and communication as a coach, and are designed to help you have those difficult conversations, and have them successfully.  Many can be adapted to improve your communication skills in presentations and meetings also.

  1. Commit to the conversation.

Barristers have to obey something called the cab-rank rule which requires them to accept instructions to become somebody’s advocate (with few, limited exceptions).  It keeps them “on the hook” and means they can’t back out.  This is a great discipline for you to adopt.  Think about all the reasons you want to have the conversation, and all the potential benefits.  It may help to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”, but you need to be realistic about the answer.

  1. Recognise that inaction also has a consequence.

This is very much linked with Tip 1.  It’s important to appreciate that if an issue needs addressing, then not addressing it can have its own problems.  Either resentment builds, becoming unhealthy for you and those around you, or that resentment spills out perhaps in a bad-tempered outburst which is very unlikely to achieve the outcome you want.  Stop seeing the status quo as the easy option.  Get motivated to have that conversation.

  1. Beware the principle.

Many clients will tell me “it’s the principle” but, believe me, it’s almost never the principle.  There is very little satisfaction from just “having it out with someone”, or “confronting them”.  So think about what it is you want to achieve in this conversation, and do it well before you have it.  Look at it this way – if you are finding it difficult to broach a subject, the last thing you want to do is have it twice.  A good question to ask yourself is “How will I know when the conversation is over?” (or “How will I know when I’ve got what I want?”)

  1. Prepare to have the conversation.

The biggest difference between those I’ve coached who rate themselves as good communicators and those who think they’re poor communicators can be simply the amount of work they put in.  That colleague of yours who seems to tackle difficult issues effortlessly, whether in meetings, presentations or one to ones, is almost certainly doing more work than you think behind the scenes.  Once you’ve worked out what it is that you want, think about the evidence to support your position, and what you’d want to ask if you were on the other side of this conversation.

  1. Think about the when, where and how.

You can significantly increase the chances of this conversation being a success if you think about when, where and how to have the conversation.  You want both you and the other person or people to be comfortable and to have sufficient time and peace to be able to think clearly.  Sometimes privacy will be important, whereas on other occasions you might prefer to be in a public setting, or perhaps walking side by side would be a less intimidating scenario?

  1. Tell them what you want, and why they should give it to you.

This is one of the basic rules of advocacy, drummed into every barrister from the beginning of their career.  It emphasises the benefit of keeping it simple.  And it’s easy to do if you’ve done the preparatory work in Tips 3 and 4.  It is also a reminder that once you’ve told them what you want and why they should give it to you.  You can stop talking.  If they want to come back to you with questions or objections you can deal with them then; you don’t need to anticipate those objections at the outset.  Just be ready for them.

  1. Nothing improves with repetition.

Another basic rule of advocacy.  It applies to both good points and bad points – they don’t get any better if you repeat them.  Credit the other person with some intelligence.  Use clear language and support your points with evidence, and in this way you will limit the time required for this conversation or meeting.  Everybody loves being given the gift of time.  And they’ll be more likely to want to speak to you again if they know that you can use time efficiently.

  1. Practise listening.

It can only be a conversation if it involves communication and allows more than one person to participate.  This makes listening as important as speaking.  You can work on this daily.  Become aware of your own behaviour.  Spot when you are really listening attentively to the other person, and when you are just wating for your turn and constructing your next brilliant line.  Identify all those occasions when you have spoken over somebody before they have finished.  Imagine what you could learn if you really listened, rather than assuming that you know what it is they want to say.

  1. Capture the conclusion clearly.

An effective conversation needs to have a conclusion – even if the only initial response you have been able to achieve is that the other person will think about it, you need to know when you can resume the conversation.  Just as a barrister wouldn’t leave the court without an order setting out the judge’s decision, with specific dates and times, you shouldn’t allow the conversation to tail off without having established as a minimum the next steps, respective responsibilities and a specific timeframe.

  1. Be fearless but courteous.

I will leave you with this fundamental principle of advocacy.  Whilst I am encouraging you to be brave, and to get out of your own way, this doesn’t prevent you from being polite and considerate.  All other things being equal, you are much more likely to achieve what you want with a measured, logical, polite approach, than you are through aggression or ill-temper.  You are probably having these difficult conversations with people you work alongside or are likely to see again, so it is important to consider that future relationship as well as the here and now.

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