Crucial Conversations with Difficult People: Six Traps to Avoid

crucial conversations

If you’re like most of us, there’s at least one person in your office or on your team that you have difficulty communicating with. You walk away frustrated/exasperated/disappointed after almost every exchange.  If you’ve been trying to find better ways to connect with that individual or motivate them to see things differently (ie. your way), you need to review the following list of six mindset traps that may be tripping you up.  Try coming into the conversation with a different perspective or starting point, and chances are you may get a different result.

1.  The Ferris Wheel Syndrome

The two of you seem to go ‘round and ‘round, having the same fruitless conversations over and over. That’s a sure sign of the need for a fresh approach. Discard your assumptions about how the conversation will go and begin by providing context. “This seems to be a topic that we keep coming back to, let me explain why it’s such a hot button issue for me right now.” After that, you need to be willing to hear their position and underlying concerns too.

2.  The Huckster Hazard

Have you been trying to “tell and sell” – that is, convince the person of the reasonableness of your position? Don’t be an evangelist. Be a psychologist. The most successful leaders and collaborators discover and fulfill people’s needs rather than try to change them.  For example, try leading with something like “You know that I feel strongly that our whole team should be utilizing the same document management system.  Is there a reason that it isn’t working for you?”

3.  The Ignorance-is-Bliss Trap

Sometimes, when dealing with personalities quite different than our own, it’s comfortable to remain contentedly clueless, neither knowing nor caring much about what makes a colleague or employee tick. You have to dig deeper to find out what drives that person professionally.  Watch to see what energizes them and what makes them lethargic in their work. Better yet, ask them which of their current or projects engages them the most.  Developing some new avenues for understanding a connection might produce some unexpected results.

4.  The Pigeon Hole Vision

If you were describing this person to a friend, what three words would you use?  Be honest and write those words down. Then, take a few minutes to think how this individual might describe themselves on their own resume. Chances are that some of your descriptors and the ones they might use to refer to the same kinds of characteristics, but your impulse is to see them as negative while they view them positive attributes.  For example, while you might characterize your colleague as “inflexible and self-righteous”, she may describe herself as “determined and confident in her decisions”. This short exercise should allow you some perspective to reset, removing your built-up negative judgments from the equation.

5.  The Denial Danger

After examining, and possibly adjusting, your own perceptions, you’ll need to step back and consider how you others perceive you. The other person’s reality has also built up over time and through past differences. Somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you probably have a pretty good idea what it is they find difficult about communicating with you.  You may not agree with their perception, but being aware of it may lead you to adjust somewhat, creating space for some success and resolution in your next exchange.

 6.  The Hanging Judge Tendency

Have you been proudly occupying a moral high ground in your past conversations with this person? It won’t help you to think of them as “always in the wrong” while you act out the role of judge or high priest. Decide now whether you really want to solve the problem or sit in judgment.  If you chose the second one we’re recommending that you begin reading this list again from the top.

As marketing guru Seth Godin reminds us, you need to meet these frustrating situations and individuals with an open heart and an open mind. The truth is, it might not be warranted, but you won’t get far without it. If it helps, you can consider yourself some sort of superhero – The Great Breakthrough Artist! However you need to build yourself up and prepare, just ensure that you go into the next conversation with a mindset of goodwill and generosity. You can’t necessarily expect the same in return, but you’ll know that you made the effort, and sometimes effort can be a super-power in itself.