The Art of Preparing for Tough Conversations

Last week, a colleague called and left me a weird formal message on my voicemail to call him back as soon as possible. This was pretty out of character for him, so I started to worry. Was he upset about something? Was our recent conversation not sitting well with him? My imagination took off. (I’m not a big worrier, but my imagination can get out of hand. #VisionaryProblems) I decided to call him the next day, and I told myself that it was because it was getting late.

Then I realized I was going to have to sit with that uncomfortable feeling for a whole day and it was going to affect my focus. So I called. Turns out he had a referral for me, a thank-you, and a personal request that he was nervous to ask for. He was relieved to connect quickly, and I was grateful I hadn’t wasted a day distracted and with a bit of extra stress on my plate.

Kicking the Stress Out of Tough Conversations

As entrepreneurs, we are often responsible for having many tough conversations, with customers, vendors, employees, and even our partners and families. Sometimes it feels so overwhelming that it seems easier to just close our eyes and hope they disappear. Unfortunately, tough situations rarely go away on their own. Usually the stress from avoiding the conversation just makes us feel worse for a longer period of time! Ugh.

As I often discuss with my coaching clients, stress of any kind (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual) usually results in us making worse decisions, and to top it off, we make them slower. Even though we’ve all told ourselves we can handle the stress, research shows that stress affects the way your brain and body function, whether we notice it or not. So, if you’re committed to making the best decisions in your business and personal life, shift your stress. Easy enough, right?

Not so much. Stress is a complicated problem—but it has solutions! By noticing how we’re responding, outwardly and inwardly, to the everyday tough conversations that we face, we can use small changes to help us minimize the negative effects of stress. Here are three things you can do to manage the stress of tough conversations in advance by planning, preparing, and bringing your best self to the meeting.

Schedule the Conversation

When we carry unfinished problems with us, they clutter our minds. Clear your mind by preemptively scheduling conversations to address concerns as they arise. As a leader, I have check-ins with my direct reports that are intentionally structured so they can share concerns before they become stressful problems. And because check-ins are pre-scheduled meetings, no one has to work up the courage to confront me (or vice versa) to have a tough conversation. If something comes up along the way, the first step is to set a time with the person to discuss it. You’ll find that stress diminishes when you have set a time, and you are much less likely to procrastinate.

Practice Self-care

One of the best ways to tackle a tough conversation is to focus on your own needs first. Are you tired, hungry, scattered, or stiff? These may seem like small issues, but resolving them can make you more resilient, more focused, and more ready to handle challenges. Take a break and go for a walk, play a guided meditation, or eat a healthy snack. Awesome leaders know that their stress levels affect others immensely.

Make a Plan

Another strategy is the 24-hour rule: as soon as you realize there’s a tough conversation that needs to happen, you’ve got 24 hours to make it happen. If you’re particularly nervous about the call or meeting, write down what you want to say in advance. You don’t need to follow a script, but writing your words out will help you clear your mind so you can lead with clarity. You can also practice saying the words aloud to your coach, a friend, or just yourself until you feel more comfortable with the message.

Pro-tip! Don’t be afraid to take a break from the conversation and come back. Creating time to process, get some perspective, and get in touch with intuition are smart strategies.

The First Step

What tough conversation have you been avoiding? Perhaps a performance chat with a difficult team member, a discussion with a vendor who could be doing better, or a conversation with your spouse? Try reaching out to them right now to talk or set up a time to speak with them soon. You’ll feel your stress level drop and you’ll be able to increase your focus on what your business and life need to thrive.

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