Preparing for pivotal conversations


Tough issues call for tough talks. Using the right approach and communicating effectively will help you get on the same page-and get on with work and life.

Your palms sweat and your mind races. There's no getting past it—some conversations are just plain hard. And your approach to these pivotal conversations can determine your professional future. If you're tempted to avoid a challenging discussion, consider this advice from my first career coach: It's what you don't say or feel you can't say that often ends up running the show.

W. Bradford Swift

I know it's hard

These conversations are often difficult because we come to them from a place of fear, lack, or struggle. We fear what the other person might think or do; we think we lack the skills to effectively communicate; and we struggle to find the right words. One of my favorite communication principles is to speak my truth to others in a way that it can be heard and will contribute. You can apply the same principle to these difficult but necessary conversations.

Speaking your truth may include sharing your concerns and fears, and it may sound like this: "Sally, I have something I need to talk to you about, and I'm a little unsure how to approach the topic. I'm afraid I'll express myself poorly, so I want you to know that my intentions are good and I want to help. Will you be open to hearing what I have to say and to receive it in the spirit it's intended?" Building context around a difficult conversation can pave the way to smoother, more effective communication.

Turn complaints into effective communication

Challenging conversations often develop when you perceive a problem and want to voice a complaint. Of course, no one likes to hear someone else complain, especially when they're the source of the complaint. But you can turn a complaint into effective communication. I call it committed complaining. Here's how it works:

1. Ask yourself, "What's the agreement, either stated or implied, that the person has broken?" If you can't find one, you really don't have a case for your complaint.

2. Explain the agreement that you think the other person has breached.

3. Determine the action that will resolve the complaint.

4. Ask for change.

For example, let's say your employer constantly asks you to work overtime. The stated or implied agreement was that you wouldn't be required to work more than 40 hours a week. But you're consistently asked to work five to 10 extra hours. You might state the complaint like this:

"Dr. Williams, when you first hired me, I understood I'd work an average of 40 hours per week. But in recent months, I've been consistently asked to work 45 to 50 hours a week, which is creating a hardship for my family."

Then complete the initial communication by making a request that, if honored, will resolve the complaint:

"I want to work this out, so I'm asking to return to the original schedule of 40 hours. Can we find a solution that won't create extra stress or hardship on the rest of the team?" By ending the "complaint" with a request, you give your employer something to respond to.

It's like working out at the gym. The more you do it, the better you get. With the practice, you'll gain confidence in your ability to find satisfying resolutions to all of your difficult conversations.

As the founder of the Life on Purpose Institute, Dr. W. Bradford Swift empowers professionals to live true to their purpose through his writing, public speaking, and coaching. Please send questions to

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