6 Tools for Handling Difficult Conversations

Perhaps a tragedy struck. Bad news needs to be shared. An uncomfortable question must be answered. And the unfortunate truth is, women leaders can’t easily or fully prepare for difficult and delicate situations like these.

You likely face many moments when just don’t know what to say. Yet, you need to say something because everyone is looking to you for guidance.

So here’s help on what to say from communication expert Eric Torrence:

1. Show up

When leaders don’t know what to say, they sometimes pull back, feeling silence is safer than potentially saying something awkward.

But you don’t want to run from the issue. Instead, recognize it.

You don’t have to be quick with the right words. Any words that show you see and understand the situation is difficult will help:

  • This is upsetting
  • This will be difficult, or
  • I want to help.

2. Lean on others’ words

Good news: You don’t have to come up with the ideal things to say in delicate situations. You can rely on people who’ve had better words in worse circumstances.

For instance, former President Barack Obama tweeted a quote from Nelson Mandela in the wake of the riots in Charlottesville late last year. In part:

No one is born hating another person … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.

It was one of the most retweeted quotes of all time.

Repeat something a colleague, friend or known leader said in a similar situation to ease the immediate pain.

3. Skip the clichés

While a difficult situation might be a good time to use another person’s inspiring words, it’s not a time for clichés.

Saying something like, Time and patience heals all wounds is pretty much the equivalent of saying, Suck it up and move on (which you surely don’t mean).

4. Avoid comparisons

The same advice goes for comparisons. Avoid comparing the current painful situation to something you’ve been through.

Comparisons – like clichés – don’t comfort people and can’t fix the problem.

What happens more often is they minimize the feelings of the people impacted by the difficult situation.

5. Listen more

Once you’ve said something, the people affected by the tough situation will likely talk.

Listen, of course. Then use your listening as a way to say more during the difficult conversation.

Reflect on what you’ve heard, recognizing the feelings people have shared. Some examples:

  • I can understand why you’re worried about how this will affect the future.
  • You have every right to be upset. This certainly looks like an uphill battle for some time.

6. Resolve less

Resist the natural tendency to start finding solutions.

The situation is difficult because there aren’t any easy solutions.

Allow time for everyone to absorb what’s happened and what you said before you move toward a resolution.

Then, when some of the difficulty has passed, or the obstacle must be resolved so your team or company can move forward, talk with your people about solutions.