When was the last time you had a really tough conversation with your change sponsor? In his Psychology Today article “How to Have Difficult Conversations,” author Dan Mager addresses a topic that all too many change management practitioners avoid. It is the human side of change that puts most initiatives at risk. Our profession is, in its many forms, the subject matter experts on the human side of change. We serve as cultural anthropologists of change, monitoring behaviors, interpreting patterns. And we know enough to be fairly effective at predicting outcomes. Yet we tend to “play it safe” when we see that the possible outcomes may not be what had been promised for the initiative at the outset.

In his article, Mager offers a recommendation on preparing for difficult conversations, and 13 ground rules for conducting them.

In terms of preparation, the author recommends planning in advance; scheduling not just a time, date and place, but also being clear about the topic, and that “whenever possible, (you) try to discuss challenging issues as they come up or soon thereafter.” My recommendation is to go one step further, and earlier. Establish the ground rules for difficult conversations before you have to have them. If you are going to serve as a true trusted advisor to the sponsor(s) you are serving, you will have to have difficult conversations, or you won’t be bringing your best to the relationship. Prepare yourself and your sponsor in advance.

While I heartily endorse all of Mager’s recommended ground rules, here are a few that struck me as not being on the conscious radar of many people.

  • “As much as possible, stay at about the same eye level.
  • “In describing your concerns and the things you’d like to happen differently, be as clear as possible and use specific examples. Avoid the words ‘always,’ ‘never.’ ‘everything,’ and ‘nothing.’
  • Keep to the topic at hand. Focus on the topic of this conversation. Bringing up issues or complaints related to other topics or past events always interferes with healthy communication during the current conversation.
  • “Do not walk away or leave the conversation without the other person’s agreement. Allow for the possibility of time-outs. It’s important to discuss and mutually agree to the concept of a “time-out” as needed.”

Difficult conversations are difficult. And, they come with the territory. In this article Mager doesn’t suggest that following his counsel will make them easier. But, it is clear that doing so can greatly improve the outcomes.

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