Discover How To Navigate Difficult Discussions: A Do’s and Don’ts Guide for Engineers

by | Jan 19, 2023

As technical professionals, we often find ourselves in situations where we need to have difficult discussions with our colleagues, superiors, or subordinates. These types of conversations can be uncomfortable, but they are necessary for effective communication and problem-solving within a team. Let’s look at the do’s and don’ts for navigating difficult discussions and finding mutually beneficial solutions.

  • Prepare: Gather all relevant information and clearly define the issues at hand before the conversation takes place. Separate your perception of the issue from the factual information.
  • Focus on behavior: Be clear on the behavior, such as arriving late, that is a concern rather than a label like “unreliable.”
  • Listen reflectively: Listen, paraphrase back the other person’s point of view until they are satisfied you understand. Only then will you share your thoughts.
  • Maintain a solution-focused mindset: Keep the conversation positive and focused on finding a mutually beneficial outcome.
  • Communicate clearly: Be direct and specific in your language and avoid using vague or ambiguous terms.
  • Acknowledge emotions: If the other person becomes emotional, calmly acknowledge the emotion you observe without judgment. You might say, “It sounds like this situation is frustrating for you.” This type of acknowledgment helps the person’s nervous system settle.
  • Be open to feedback: Be willing to adjust your own perspective if necessary.
  • Verify understanding: Before ending the conversation, ask the other person to repeat their understanding of the next steps. This allows everyone to leave with clarity.
  • Avoid placing blame: Difficult discussions are not about finding someone to blame but finding a solution that works for everyone.
  • Don’t lose control of your emotions: Keep your emotions in check so that the conversation focuses on finding a solution.
  • Steer clear of labels: Labels like “disrespectful” are your interpretation of the other person’s behavior. Use the specific behavior instead of the label.
  • Don’t be closed-minded: Be open to different perspectives and ideas. There is always another way to see a situation.
  • Stay away from vague or ambiguous terms: This can lead to misunderstandings and prolong the conversation. Rely on specific behavior examples for clarity.
  • Don’t avoid feedback: It’s important to be open to feedback and willing to adjust your own perspective if necessary.

Navigating difficult discussions is an important part of leadership and effective communication for technical professionals. By following these do’s and don’ts, you can navigate these conversations with confidence and success.

Read the full article published in the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Journal “Having a Difficult Discussion: A Step-by-Step Guide” written by Shelley Row, PE, CSP from Blue Fjord Leaders. In this article, Shelley explores the steps to having a difficult discussion and the importance of mastering this skill.

Shelley is a leadership training consultant for engineers. Learn more about how we can help you improve your leadership skills and communication.



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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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