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The 8 Ps: How to Have a Difficult Conversation

Computer keyboards clicking, coffee machine screaming, people chattering, and you are facing your supervisor’s door. It is large, brown, and wooden. You can’t help but picture him or her inside working away with no idea that you are waiting outside with your fist raised, wanting to knock on the door. Something has been bothering you and you feel the need to approach your supervisor about it.

Every once in a while, you are going to have to take part in difficult conversations. They could be about asking for more guidance on a task, wanting to move to a quieter workspace, needing a mentor, or asking for additional accommodations. These conversations might not be easy, but they are inevitable.

Let’s chat about chatting.

Just like an athletic competition or taking a test, it is important to “warm up”, or prepare yourself. If you learn to warm up beforehand, you have a better chance of hitting a home run or acing the test. So, what does a conversation warm up look like? Follow the routine below and you will walk out of your supervisor’s office feeling accomplished.

To best explain the process, let’s first create a hypothetical scenario. Picture this: Your supervisor has given you a task to be in charge of. They did not explain it as clearly as you’d hoped. You do not know what the main purpose is for the task or when they want it done by. You hope to get clear guidelines and a timeline for the task from your supervisor.

  1. Plan

Going into a hard conversation without a plan is not a good idea. Plan is the first P for a reason. Often, if we try to come up with words in the moment, our emotions get the best of us. Planning does not mean that you need a script, it simply means that you need to have some main points you want to make sure you bring up. Consider: What matters most to you? What is your purpose for the conversation?

With your task in mind, your objectives going into your supervisor’s office are to 1) find out what they want you to produce and 2) when they want it by. Take out a piece of paper and write this down to help you remember.

You have time before lunch. Let’s go then. So now, we have the goal for the conversation and when we will hold the conversation.

  1. Prepare (Your Mind)

Anticipating a difficult conversation can fix a negative mindset. It is easy to feel scared and worried. When you feel this way, you are likely to also feel less confident going into your supervisor’s office.

As you have probably heard before, confidence is important. Preparing your mind will boost your confidence. Instead of thinking about how hard the conversation is, think about all the good that can come from it. The amount of time you will be struggling will be so little compared to the amount of time in the future that will be better because of the conversation.

Some ways to prepare you mind can include setting aside a few minutes to breathe, meditate, or think about something that makes you happy. Think about what makes you smile and what good will come out of this conversation.

After you plan the conversation, it is time to de-stress. Do you have a stress ball, or an item that helps you relax when you feel anxious? Play around with it for a few minutes to help shake out all the nervous energy. You could also watch a favorite YouTube video or listen to relaxing music. (Be sure to keep your break short – between 5-10 minutes!) Hopefully you are smiling now.

  1. Perspective

We each see the world differently. You have your own opinions and your supervisor has theirs. Before talking to them, anticipate the way they will see the issue. If you are asking for additional accommodations, your boss will be thinking about time, inconvenience, budget, and worker productivity. Think about what things you would consider if you were the supervisor.

In this case, your supervisor thinks that they already explained the important parts of the task to you. They aren’t yet aware that you need more details in order to be successful. Your supervisor didn’t mean to withhold the goal of the task or the deadline, or perhaps they thought it was implied.

  1. Pace

Sometimesitissoeasytospeedthroughaconversationwithoutwantingtoslowdownbecauseyourheartisbeatingreallyfastandyoujustwanttospitoutthewordsbuttheotherpersoncannotevenunderstandwhatyouaretryingtosay.

Slow down. When you are trying to get a point across, it is important to appear pensive and thoughtful. If you talk too fast, words get mixed up. You will most likely have to go back and repeat yourself. Speaking slowly shows your supervisor that you have thought about what you are trying to say. It shows that you are confident. You should be confident!

Along with this, set yourself up to be comfortable with silence. Time is important and sometimes silence is a necessary pain. Anticipate some silence while your supervisor thinks about how to respond. It really is okay!

You’re relaxed, you have a notecard, you’ve thought about your supervisor’s perspective, now let’s slow down. Slow your brain down, slow your words down. Let’s say something out loud, practicing a calm, natural speed. Say, “I__would__like__some__clarification__.” Be sure to speak at a natural pace – not too slow and not too fast.

  1. Pronunciation

Pronunciation is different than pace. With pronunciation, the idea is be clear and concise. We all love to add “word fluff” in places we feel necessary. (“Word fluff” is unnecessary language, such as sentences, adjectives, verbs, and so on.) We add word fluff in essays to meet the length requirement. We add word fluff before we have to deliver bad news. We add word fluff when we do not know what to say.

Word fluff is not beneficial in this situation. The best approach is to speak in a straightforward, polite manner. This will let your supervisor know that you are serious and focused. What is unnecessary to say? What is your point and the facts around it? How will you get to the point?

You’re about to go see your supervisor. Look at your notecard. These are the points you want to talk about. Do not let your mind stray from your main points. Stay here, on the card.

  1. Place

Location of the conversation is something to consider. Often, supervisors are most likely going to be at their desk or in their office. Find a place that will help you focus on the conversation by thinking about convenient locations in or around your worksite. Maybe you feel comfortable in your supervisor’s office or in the hallway. Think about how to create comfort before going outside your comfort zone. Where can you focus?

Look around. You see harsh lights and hear lots of noises. This is not where you want to hold the conversation. Remember that common space by the cafeteria? It is quieter before the lunch rush and has a warm atmosphere. Suggest this place to your supervisor.

  1. Prompt

They say that the first sentence of a book, called a “hook”, is what makes a person want to read the story. True. You need a hook. A hook is not a fancy, eloquent lead in, but is more of a way to get the attention of your supervisor. Just like avoiding word fluff, your hook should be direct. A lead in could say, “I would like talk to you about the meeting yesterday,” or “Do you mind if we discuss some questions I have about the recent task?” By stating the overall reason for approaching your supervisor, they will know what to expect and can decide if it is a good time. The weather may be nice, but no need to tell them that before telling them what you really want to say!

You can also name a time and place in your lead in. This gives your supervisor the opportunity to consider their schedule. Be direct and respectful. How can you be polite? How can you summarize what you want to talk about in a few words? 

You have questions about the task. This is what your supervisor should know. So, let’s tell them! You should start by saying, “Hey Mrs. XYZ, I would like to talk to you about some questions I have about the task you assigned me.” If you want, write it on the notecard, it may come out easier that way.

  1. Produce (A Resolution)

The last P is for certain situations. Depending on the scenario, there might be some conflict. Before going into the office, remind yourself of ways to resolve conflict: negotiation. Some topics may make you feel like you are playing a game of tug-of-war. This is not war, call a truce.

When negotiating, make sure to clearly articulate your perspective and needs. Be persistent in what you came for, but think about how to make ends meet. How can you both be happy? How can you leave knowing that you both feel like you succeeded?

In this scenario, conflict is not likely to arise. However, if it does, maybe it is about the deadline. If your supervisor names a date that seems unreasonable, think about a date in between. Propose another date that you feel like will satisfy your supervisor and keep you productive.

Hey! Conversations can be difficult, but that does not mean they have to be. It just takes a little warming up. Follow the 8 Ps and you will leave feeling fulfilled.

Now you are facing the door. The computer keyboards clicking, coffee machine screaming, people chattering no longer ring in your ears because you are ready. Go ahead and knock on the door. Keep your head up because you can do it.

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