May 31, 2017

What To Do After a Difficult Conversation

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Manage people long enough and you will run into those uncomfortable difficult situations we all try to avoid. Neither party likes to have the conversation – the person giving it or the person hearing it.

While there are a variety of ways to conduct difficult conversations, Dolores Bernardo, who focuses on leadership development at Airbnb, says not nearly enough focus has been placed on what to do after one. “I have learned that the ability to follow up and build a relationship after a hard conversation matters just as much as the skill of tackling that initial difficult conversation,” she says in a recent Harvard Business Review article.  

Bernardo shares three key steps to rebuild a good working relationship following a challenging conversation:

Step 1: Acknowledge that the conversation happened. Bernardo says that while we often want to forget or purposely avoid recognizing that a hard conversation took place, that’s a mistake. “It leaves you powerless, and leaves your colleague guessing at how to handle the situation as well,” she says. Her advice is to: 1) proactively follow up, b) acknowledge that it was a tough situation, and c) focus on the positive.

“There is huge value in appreciating that you were able to come together, identify and discuss a big issue, and even have the conversation in the first place,” Bernardo says. “Thank your colleague for taking the time to engage in the conversation.”

Step 2: Find ways to move the conversation forward. “Be proactive in showing that you are resilient and solutions-oriented, and that you want to stay in the conversation,” Bernardo says. “Even if you were only able to come to agreement about a few action steps during the difficult conversation, send a follow-up email to summarize the conversation and focus on the outcomes you both want.”

Step 3: Focus on building the long-term relationship. If the only interaction you have with someone is a difficult conversation, they may start avoiding you. “Pay attention to building the relationship outside of the challenging conversation,” Bernardo says. “This balances both the outcome you desire on the issue at hand and the work relationship you want for the long-term.”

Actively building positive relationships after a difficult conversation is not easy, but Bernardo says it is a muscle you can build and it gets easier with practice.