Whether in the office, the dugout or the customer services counter, how we deal with difficult conversations can impact on whether we ultimately achieve the right outcome. What’s your advice and first-hand experiences on how to deal with conflict?
As a partner and dispute resolution lawyer at Capital Law, Andrew Brown is experienced in resolving difficult conversations which create the right result for the party he represents. Andrew is ranked in Band 1 by the ‘Legal 500’ and ‘Chambers and Partners’. Below Andrew offers guidance for those that need to have a difficult conversation, but don’t know how to approach it.
Q. Sometimes it is necessary to raise an issue that the other person will find uncomfortable or difficult to talk about. What’s the best way to initiate such a conversation and avoid being overly challenging?
Preparation is the key. Ensure you have sufficient information to plan the structure of what issues you need to cover. Keep it constructive and outcomes based – working for solutions to the problem.
Difficult or uncomfortable conversations have a danger of straying off piste, but the quality of your preparation should ensure that you remain focused, the conversation remains on track (however flexible and accommodating you wish to appear), and the way forward will become clearer for you and the other person.
Also pick your time and location wisely. Common sense applies here (avoid busy deadlines and bars) – allow sufficient time and privacy is key.
Q. What can you do to prevent a conversation turning nasty? How do you diffuse a heated situation early on?
Tone of voice is key – be clear, calm and focused on the end result. Keep it objective, not personal.
Listen carefully. Show the other party that you are listening to them by playing back their key points. If you’re focusing too much on the issues you want to cover, you’re risking a constructive outcome.
Be prepared to flex your approach to achieve the right result.
Q. What is the best way to deal with a conversation that can have no resolution or where you are simply not empowered to act? Is it better to nip it in the bud immediately or let the other person vent their spleen?
If you’re in the firing line of someone who just wants to vent their spleen, then it’s good to have a thick skin. But if you’re not empowered to act or there is no immediate resolution in sight, you can still regain control by: 1) listening carefully; 2) showing you’ve listened by capturing the key points they’ve made; 3) explaining who is best placed to deal with them (if you’re faced with a rant, explain that you’ll need key points to report back); and 4) giving the other person a ‘route map’ to resolution (i.e. that you will need to report back to the person who is empowered and the approximate timescale for doing so). Being clinical in your approach should help to diffuse the rant and help to nip it in the bud.
Q. In what circumstances is it useful to have a mediator or third-party present when having a potentially difficult conversation?
If you’re thinking of involving a mediator or other third party, think about what you want to achieve, precisely what role you envisage them having in the process, and how the suggestion of involving a mediator is likely to be perceived. The mediator must be independent, but make sure you’ve done your homework on them. Think about the personalities involved and which mediator or third party has the best experience and interpersonal skills to work with them.
Where facts are in issue, emotions are running high and/or there is a deadlock between the parties, it can be useful to involve a third party. But the best mediators test the parties’ views in the private session and are meant to be facilitators not judges.
If the mediator or third party isn’t adding value to the process, don’t be frightened to ditch them.
If a mediator becomes involved, keep ownership of the problem. It’s yours to solve.
Q. Dealing with conflict requires a skilled communicator. Are people natural mediators or do you think it comes with experience? Have you changed how you respond in situations of conflict over the years? What have you learned from past experience, colleagues or others about dealing with these situations?
It’s a healthy mix of experience, personality and knowing your opponent. You can only really understand your opponent by listening to them. Lawyers often forget the power of listening because they’re wired to argue. Talk less and listen more.