Skills for Mastering Tough Talks
Distinguish yourself as a leader by excelling at the difficult conversations that many lawyers dread.
By Delee Fromm, Fromm & Goodhand
You deal with high-stakes legal conversations all the time. That’s what clients pay you to do, and you do it well. But handling a sensitive or emotionally charged conversation, such as communicating a critical performance evaluation, letting someone go, or discussing why work has not been done or has been done poorly, requires you to be adroit in a different way.
Getting results when dealing with difficult situations, difficult people, and difficult conversations – projecting confidence while maintaining relationships – is a key leadership skill. But lawyers may, for a variety of reasons, be at a particular disadvantage in this area.
Legal training promotes advocacy, and the attitude that someone wins and someone loses; in short, the side with the most cogent and logical argument wins. In difficult conversations, however, hearing the other side’s view is often just as important, if not more important, than asserting your own.
Second, lawyers typically are comfortable with confrontation. Due to professional training, personal preference and type of work, dealing with conflict head-on is not as daunting for lawyers as it is for others. In the rush to confront, planning and preparation may be skipped.
Finally, unlike leaders in the corporate world, lawyers are not taught leadership skills in university. Indeed, until very recently, leadership skills for lawyers were seldom mentioned.
So how do you become skillful in dealing with tough talks? To excel, it is important to be aware of how stress influences your communication style, and to develop communication skills that allow the other person to feel safe while letting information flow.
Know your style under stress
Often when people are under stress or feel unsafe, they react in one of two distinct ways. They either avoid dealing with the difficult subject, or they try to overpower the other person using verbal strategies. And neither of these reactions allows information to flow in a constructive way.
These two styles are typically used automatically, without awareness, so that when things become stressful we don’t know what we are saying or how we sound.
By becoming more aware of the two styles and the different forms each may take during a tough talk, we can discover which style we prefer. Through awareness, we can stop using them habitually and start using them selectively and appropriately.
Know your purpose
One of the most important things in starting a high-risk discussion is to begin with the right motive and to stay focused no matter what happens. When you find yourself moving towards avoidance or overpowering reactions, ask yourself “What does my behavior tell me about my motives?”
Then clarify what you hope to achieve by asking – “What do I really want for myself? For others? For the relationship? This will help you to sort out how you should behave if these goals are what you really want to achieve.
Use powerful listening skills
To keep the conversation flowing, use listening skills that allow the other person to open up. Move from certainty to curiosity. What perceptions and information does the other person have that you don’t have? Ask them for their views. Acknowledge their feelings as they express them. Probe – draw the other person out with questions.
Agree where you can
Often we focus on the small part we disagree on while not acknowledging where there is huge agreement. Many times people argue when in fact they agree because they simply have not explored the issue deeply enough to discover their agreement.
Don’t obsess over differences. Reduce the need to be right and look for points of agreement. Instead of saying “That was wrong, you forgot to say...”, you might say “Absolutely. In addition I noticed that...”
Acknowledge where you see the problem or situation differently from the other person, as opposed to seeing them as wrong and you as right.
Avoid ‘two-choice bind’
Refuse to see yourself as having only two choices in each situation: winning versus losing, candid versus respectful, kind versus honest. It’s a simplistic trade-off that prevents creative thinking and justifies black and white thinking.
Instead, ask yourself what you really want, as well as what you don’t want. Then ask yourself “How do I get both”? Is there a way to tell your peer your real concerns and not insult or offend her? Is there a way to talk to your assistant about his underperformance and motivate him to do better? How do you speak up and still maintain respect?
At the heart of using the “how do I get both” approach is knowing how to have a tough talk that solves problems while at the same time builds relationships.
It is never easy to deal with tough talks or difficult situations. However, through using and mastering these skills and developing the attitudes suggested, tough talks will become less and less tough.
Delee Fromm is both a lawyer and psychologist who has taught and coached for over 24 years. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Relevant links on CBA PracticeLink:
When the partners aren’t following procedure
How to deal effectively with chronic complainers
Difficult Conversations, Nov. 3, Toronto