Don’t Shoot the Messenger 10 Tips for Conducting Difficult Conversations

Fans of Sling Blade* may recognize this image of Karl and Doyle having a difficult conversation. If you have seen the movie (a brilliant and cult classic), you know that before Karl confronted Doyle with the difficult message, he planned and organized his thoughts, approach and even the consequences of the message.


Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the movie, please skip down a paragraph while I discuss how this scene was executed…

For the rest of you, it went like this:

Doyle (on the right): What’cha doin’ with that lawn mower blade Karl?

Karl: I aim to kill you with it.

I hope your difficult conversations weren’t as grim as that. But when you find yourself avoiding a family member, friend or co-worker so you can avoid a difficult conversation, it’s time to organize your thoughts and meet the challenge head-on. Here are some simple steps to break the inertia so you can get it over with and move on:

  1. Who is the audience and what do you want them to feel afterwards?
  2. Will you deliver it in person (assumes manageable size group), email, press release, etc?
  3. Timing matters – plan to deliver the message when the receiver can be focused on receiving it, not distracted by other demands on their attention.
  4. What positive aspects can you include? Use them to sell the message.
  5. Be honest – give as much information as you know and make sure it is accurate. Don’t rush into the communication and take someone else’s word – personally verify the facts as close to the source as possible.
  6. Whatever you don’t know about a situation, say so and promise to follow up when you do know.
  7. Whatever assumptions you had to make to construct the message, work those in too.
  8. Draft the message, read it back to yourself, read it aloud to yourself; if possible, get feedback from a confidante.
  9. If you screwed up, say what you are doing about it and how soon it will be fixed.
  10. Certain messages should only be delivered in person and in private – respect and follow that professional mandate regardless of how uncomfortable you think you will feel – try to image how the recipient will feel and exercise empathy in your preparations and delivery.

Whether faced with delivering a difficult message to customers, employees, vendors or the board of directors, Cypress Business Communications can help. Contact us to discuss your unique situation.

*Written, produced by, and starring Billy Bob Thornton.

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