How to Have Difficult Conversations With Your Clients

Firing a client.
Ending a romantic relationship.
Addressing staff behavior problems.
Challenging the racist relative at family dinner.
Talking about finances and debt.

The above are but a few examples of difficult conversations we
face in life. For the purpose of this article, we will focus only
on difficult conversations from the client-coach perspective and
how they can impact our work and business. However, becoming better
at work-related difficult conversations is bound to have a positive
impact on your personal ones as well. Win-win!

What Is a Difficult Conversation?


We can define difficult
conversation as a verbal exchange in which we anticipate a number
of negative reactions — such as resistance, hurt feelings, anger,
or hostility — from our counterparts.

Difficult conversations are painted with a brush of big
emotions, typically motivated by strong opinions, entrenched
values, and other core beliefs. This is precisely why navigating
difficult conversations can be so tricky: they touch deeply
personal chords and thus have the ability to threaten or be a
source of shame.

In the book Crucial Conversations, authors Kerry Patterson,
Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler define these
interactions by three determining factors:

  1. Opinions vary
  2. Stakes are high
  3. Emotions are strong

Why Are Difficult Conversations So Scary?

Difficult conversations make most of us shudder because of the
perceived danger they imply: almost no one loves the thought of
stepping into the proverbial arena and fighting the lion.

In our own life, the lion may be our client’s resistance to
admit that their drinking is hindering their weight loss, or their
anger when they are informed that a comment they made was
inappropriate and will not be tolerated. The process is the same:
we fear confrontation.


Our limbic system may
be to blame for this fear. The limbic system has been dubbed as our
lizard brain for its primitive focus on the simplistic, yet
essential, basic needs of life: survival, feeding, and
reproduction.

Specifically, our amygdala sits in charge of emotion, addiction,
mood, and many other mental and emotional processes. Here is where
our fight, flight or freeze response kicks in at the first sight of
a perceived threat.

Enter difficult conversations and why we sabotage them, hold
back from them, and avoid them at all cost:

What if they get mad at me?
What if they yell?
What if they no longer like me for bringing this up?
Will they go off on a rage?

All of the above are perceived threats. Amygdala overdrive!
Thank, you lizard brain. Now take a seat.

Difficult Conversations: A New Perspective

Here is a healthy dose of reality: difficult conversations
cannot be avoided forever. If you must step up and conduct them,
why not do so gracefully and in a way that is beneficial to all
parties involved?

Difficult conversations are the backbone of all
relationships.

If becoming skilled at difficult conversations will make you a
better coach, boss, partner and parent, isn’t it worth the time
and effort to master the skill? We certainly think so!

Confrontation Does Not Have to Equal Conflict

Perhaps the most liberating perspective to be gained is this:
confrontation does not have to equal conflict.

We can confront things that bother us without the conversation
ending in a fight. We can address pain points without being
disliked by our counterparts. We can communicate effectively and
respectfully, in a way that leaves all parties feeling heard.


Once we realize that
difficult conversations have the potential to be a driving force
toward positive change, we become more willing to lean in and have
those conversations — the right way. There’s much to be gained
from this practice.

Who knows, you might even end up becoming one of those unique
people who actually enjoy and dive right into difficult
conversations! Hey, it happened to this author; it could happen to
you, too!

Success in a Difficult Conversation

Success of a difficult conversation can be achieved by keeping
in mind the following pointers:

Avoid Speaking in Absolutes

Words like never, always, every time, everything, and nothing
are rarely true, and they quickly undermine the quality of the
conversation. They can cause your client to become defensive and
focus on listing off the times they have indeed complied — hardly
the outcome you desire.

  • Instead of “You never follow my recommendations,” try
    “Sometimes my recommendations aren’t followed, and I’m
    wondering what changes we can make to better your
    adherence.”
  • Instead of “Every time I ask for your food journal you have
    an excuse,” try “I’ve noticed logging your food journal has
    been difficult, and I’d like to help in making that process
    easier for you.”
  • Instead of “You always drink during the week,” try “I
    believe drinking has remained a challenge, and I’d like to
    explore how we can improve that for benefit of your goals.”

Approach the Conversation With Curiosity and Openness

If you’re functioning from a standpoint of wanting to be
“right,” you’re already setting yourself up for failure. Aim
for problem-solving, rather than right vs. wrong dynamics. Remain
receptive to what the other person has to say. Information may
arise that changes what you believed to be true, and you can only
discover this by being open.

  • Instead of “This is the way it should be,” try “I’d
    like to hear your input: how do you think we should go about
    this?”
  • Instead of “If you want to reach your goals, this is what has
    to be done,” try “I want to hear your thoughts: what do you
    think needs to happen next to get closer to your goal?”

To be clear, what needs to happen for your client to reach their
goal may not change. But, by asking for their input, you are
including them in the conversation and problem-solving process,
instead of just dictating orders.

Take Ownership of Your Own Feelings

No one can make you feel a certain way — those feelings belong
to you. By taking ownership of our feelings we avoid falling into
the blame game — a positive step to effective communication.

Instead of “You make me upset when you make insensitive
comments during class,” try “I feel upset when you make that
type of comment because to me it reflects a lack of respect for
others.”

Helpful examples of ways to frame your viewpoint without making
accusations or placing blame others may sound like:

  • “To me…”
  • “In my view…”
  • “It is my opinion that…”
  • “I think…”
  • “I may be wrong, but the way I see it…”

In the end, we can never truly know what the other person is
thinking or feeling, and their intentions may be vastly different
from what we believe them to be.

Reach an Agreement

In the most successful difficult conversations, an agreement is
reached. Both parties feel like they can adhere to it, and the
agreement seems fair and balanced to both.


“We tried sticking to
your diet plan for one month, and that didn’t quite work out.
What do you think would be a reasonable time frame for us to test
instead? Two weeks? One week?”

“I think we both have given this a really good try, but we
don’t seem to be a good fit for each other. I’d be more than
happy to recommend you a few colleagues in the area who would be
eager to work with you. Would this be helpful to you?”

In Conclusion

Difficult conversations have an amazing potential to help us
grow beyond our comfort zone and learn beyond our limitations. One
of the gravest mistakes we can do is postponing difficult
conversations, since problems tend to fester and get worse the
longer we procrastinate.

Leaning into difficult conversations is an act of
empowerment.

By making the decision to confront the challenge at hand, you
enable yourself to act responsibly, maturely, honestly and
respectfully — as opposed to avoiding, being anxious, and
reacting. Talk about a change in dynamics!

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Source: FS – All-FitnessBlogs
How to Have Difficult Conversations With Your Clients