Tips for Transforming Difficult Conversations

January 18, 2023

“So you’ll be responsible for communicating these changes to the whole organisation”, John’s heart sank as he heard those words from his Chief Executive and the narrative inside his head rapidly achieved overdrive as he desperately thought of how the hard working people in the organisation would react to this difficult news.  The changes were significant, comprising of salary cuts, longer working hours, enhanced key performance indicators, enforced redundancies and loss of personal development benefits, that’s a lot of unwelcome change.  He simply could not see a way of imparting this information whilst retaining staff morale and performance levels.  John needed help, a new way of delivering difficult information whilst nurturing evolved attitudes for a new era.

If you have walked in John’s shoes, then you too are frequently required to deliver difficult messages either to individuals or to teams.  Perhaps you too are looking for a new approach to illuminate the answer to creating conversations that matter?  In this respect, the profession of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has many, highly resonant approaches to offer which will transform the way you communicate completely, assisting you to effectively manage organisational and social negativity and retain and build morale.

NLP is a broad and rich field of study, providing deep insights into the thinking and behaviour which come together to create the human condition.  Using NLP as your compass, it becomes far easier to make that voyage into consistently understanding how people process, interpret and act on the multi-sensory information that they receive.  When you embark on a journey of change, you must take those affected with you, to help man the oars and inject energy into the effort which creates the momentum to travel forward towards a shared destination.

I would like to share some of those NLP insights with you here, in summary form.  The primary element towards stimulating a constructive dialogue that you simply must embrace is what you believe about your message.  The transmission of deep seated personal beliefs isn’t something that you are consciously aware of and it is happening all of the time when you are conversing with others.  You project your beliefs through your physiology, energy and language outside of your conscious awareness, so if you have no belief in your message there will be no resonance for your audience.  Make sure you fully understand the reasoning behind the difficult message, the desired destination and believe in it.

As you approach your key conversation, think carefully about your own emotional state at the point of delivery.  NLP provides us with a practical state management technique called anchoring.  Anchoring allows you to change your emotional state to something more useful, on demand.  There is little to be gained from having a difficult conversation when you are angry, frustrated, nervous, fearful, anxious or upset.  Absolutely the best state to be in is one of relaxed alertness and some well-placed, appropriate humour goes a long way towards generating essential rapport.

We often hear about this magical condition between two individuals or an individual and a group that is known as rapport and do we really know how to create it at a very deep level?  At its most basic, rapport is a process of matching and mirroring of physiology.  It is an accepted psychological phenomenon that people like people who are like them and are willing to assist them in achieving their goals.  Making conscious connections with the unconscious minds of your audience is how you are going to take them with you on the change journey and to have them accept your difficult message uncritically.  Extend your matching and mirroring beyond the boundaries of the obviously physiological and match the expressions, idiosyncratic language, sensory preferences, voice speed, pitch, volume, quality and most significantly, match the breathing patterns to create a most mystical connection.

So, you believe in your message and you are in a useful emotional state.  You have spent some time building deep rapport with your audience, now and only now should you deliver your message.  At this point, the way you have constructed your message will dictate your results.  Always begin with some robust reasons as to why your audience will benefit from hearing what you have to say.  As everyone likes to receive information differently, make sure that you use a recipe that combines visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory and gustatory linguistic ingredients.  This is the ‘big picture’ offering and should include all of the positive reasons why the changes are going to benefit the organisation and the individuals within it under the umbrella of a long-term vision.  

Use your sensory acuity to observe your audience and when you sense that you have buy-in to the why statements, then you can tell them what the difficult message is.  Begin with a story, a metaphor for change which touches each individual at the personal level and opens up access to the unconscious mind in a way that seems almost magical in its nature.  Our culture is built on a colourful foundation of metaphor and those stories are just as relevant today as they always were.  The use of stories in your message will create a myriad of coloured threads which can be woven into a rich tapestry illustrating the difficult news in a way that is palatable and even compelling.  Keep your language positive at all times.  The unconscious mind does not process negatives, so say it the way you want it.  This is about detail, what the difficult message means to each and every individual.  The psychology of response dictates that people are more likely to accept unwelcome news if they feel fully informed.  For these people, detail is crucial and the big picture alone just won’t suffice.

Next, your message should describe how the changes are going to be implemented.  This is the point where you can leverage a wider range of perspectives by stimulating conversation and opinion.  Encourage discussion, questions, perhaps an exercise or two to allow self-coaching and peer-coaching to develop.  Finally, close by having your audience consider what if everyone took an oar and helped to propel the organisation forward into a brighter future.  Have your audience consider and vocalise reasons why they should accompany you on the journey towards a successful future for all.

John paused and looked out at his audience, silence, what would happen next?  He could hardly believe what did happen.  Everyone got to their feet and began to applaud, there was a tangible sense of camaraderie in the air and people looked more determined and motivated than before.  The message was the same, it was the delivery that was new and highly successful.  NLP works, you just need to know how.

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