Four top tips for better conversations

A little while ago, I put together some material for the Working effectively with your supervisor Canvas course on managing difficult conversations. The research I did clarified a few things in my mind, and the four key points that I ended up with are things I return to regularly, in all areas of my life, to help me get the most out of meetings and conversations, regardless of whether I expect them to be difficult or not.

I thought I’d share them with you.

  1. Prepare for the conversation, and in particular, think about what a successful outcome (and an acceptable compromise) would be. It’s really good to get into the habit of this for every meeting you have. Knowing what you want up front means that you can communicate more clearly, ask all the right questions, and know when to stop/move on. If you’re asking your partner to take the dog for a walk more often, are you thinking about once a month, twice a week, every day? What would be ideal, and what would you accept?
  2. Only say what you know. The things you know are the behaviours you have observed and how you feel. It’s too easy to make assumptions about the motivations of others, and it can come across as accusatory in speech. Stick to the facts you have observed or feelings that you yourself have experienced. “You’re ignoring me” versus “I e-mailed you twice last week and I haven’t received a reply from you”. “You don’t want me to do well” versus “I feel demotivated when I receive exclusively negative feedback from you”. This is always good practice, but if you expect a conversation to be difficult, you might also like to collect some notes and evidence to support you.
  3. Practise active listening. During any conversation or negotiation, you need to understand the other person’s point of view. The only way you can do this is by really hearing what they are saying. Don’t focus on what you are going to say next, but listen without interrupting. Ask relevant questions. Paraphrase what they’ve said back to them to check you have understood. Then, reflect and respond.
  4. Stay calm. Don’t be afraid to pause and take a breath before replying. If necessary, take a break or defer the rest of the discussion. Approach the topic at hand as a team; us against the problem, not you against me.

As I said, this is all great advice for any conversation. However, if you would like further advice on having difficult conversations, view the course on LinkedIn Learning. You have access to LinkedIn Learning as a member of the University of Birmingham – information on setting up your login.

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Helen Kara

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