CommunicationConflict ResolutionLeadership

Preparing for a Forthright Discussion

Although few of us like to confront or challenge another person, even when it is justified, we inevitably have to have these conversations from time to time. If we are leaders it is best to be prepared before we do this. We are then more likely to conduct these discussions in a manner that results in a positive outcome for both parties and minimises any feelings of discomfort. When handled correctly, a confrontation can even be a positive experience for all with any feelings of defensiveness or negativity minimized or eliminated altogether. It can even build trust and respect between parties over time, when handled well. 

The steps for preparing for what we’ll call a “forthright” discussion with a person will vary from one leader to the next and be governed heavily by what you have to say and to whom. However there are a number of tips about doing this that apply to most situations.

1: Separate facts from assumptions

As leaders we may want to have a forthright conversation because of what we see as “black and white” facts (the person was late, absent or missed a deadline, etc.). However, our views are almost always coloured by assumptions as to why these events occurred, including that we were clear about the standards we expected in the first place. In addition, we may invent reasons for the other party’s apparent shortfalls that may not be appropriate such as he or she is lazy, lacking in a given skill or distracted. As these assumptions tend to undermine the conversation when presented, we should try not to talk about them but simply point to the facts. We can then ask open questions to let the other party describe what he or she thinks happened. 

2: Don’t seek an outcome in which you are “right” and they are “wrong”

The objective of a forthright discussion isn’t to arrive at subjective judgments like “right” or “wrong” or to apportion blame. Instead the goal should be to have a mutual discussion to “dig into” the issue of concern and to determine why there is a gap at all in terms of expectations. To avoid this right/wrong judgment and language, the calm and enquiring tone that a leader sets at the beginning of the conversation is very important. 

 3: Don’t live with mediocrity or delay giving feedback

Many leaders prefer to seek harmony or be team-oriented and therefore broadly non-confrontational when it comes to issues. But these issues and unwanted levels of mediocrity, when left unaddressed, act as a spreading cancer. Problems only grow in size and make the eventual conversation even tougher to have with the individual concerned. Leaders should therefore address issues almost as soon as they arise. This way issues can be addressed with little rancour and performance normalised quickly in most cases. 

4: Accept that the situation will be uncomfortable for both parties 

It is natural for both parties in an expected difficult conversation to face it with fear and even to believe there will be negative outcomes. This is a natural “fight or flight” reaction and it affects both parties, not just the receiver. So accept that these feelings are going to be present for both people in the conversation. You might even point out the awkwardness by saying something at the outset like – I know this is a difficult situation for both of us but my goal is to find solutions and work with you collaboratively – is that OK?

5: Appreciate that some conflict and confrontation Is healthy

There can be wider organisational benefits resulting from some conflict and confrontation which actually helps greater innovation to occur. According to considerable research in the past 20 years, difficult conversations can allow both parties to get information off their chests and start to realise that there were hidden issues which coloured perceptions. This realisation often helps to de-stress one or both parties and stop the worrying over the long term because issues are now in the open.

Giving straight feedback or having forthright conversations is not an easy thing to do. We need to reflect on what’s to be achieved in terms of best possible outcomes, plan for the discussion carefully and pay attention to all five tips described above. Then our discussions are likely to go more smoothly and may even strengthen our relationship with the other person. Don’t forget: Feedback is a gift.

Related Resources

Giving Constructive Feedback: Skill Builder Booklet (PDF)

Listening: Skill Builder Booklet (PDF)

Communication Effectiveness Profile (PDF)

Giving and Receiving Feedback Storyboard (PDF)

Comments (1)

  1. Gary Hourigan

    Sound advice. Good awareness for any leader, as early as possible.

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