The willingness and skill to tackle tough conversations is a must for effective leaders. Dr. Kimberly Janson of Janson Associates is the premier consultant and coach offering solid research and tangible practices to master the art of difficult conversations. With her newest book on the way, Determining Leadership Potential, Dr. Janson shares advice on conflict resolution.

There is a heaviness associated with having difficult conversations, which makes most people reluctant to have them. However, procrastination and lack of confidence in braving difficult conversations can be costly – to organizations and you personally. Delaying can cause even more significant issues. The good news is communication skills, such as being skilled at managing difficult conversations, can be practiced and developed, and individuals can get better at this. Think of it like your golf swing. With concentrated time, understanding, practice, and commitment, your swing — and your ability to navigate such conversations — can improve greatly. 

This is one of the many problems that Dr. Kimberly Janson, CEO, and President of Janson Associates, helps clients overcome. She is highly experienced with planning, preparing for, and assisting leaders with many of the difficult conversations they need to have with investors, clients, and staff involved with prestigious organizations around the world. She has 25 years of experience working in over 40 countries and offers premier executive coaching, leadership consulting, assistance with merger and acquisition, cultural transformation, strategic planning, team optimization, and organizational development. Dr. Janson has experienced, researched, practiced, produced thought leadership, and taught all aspects of talent management from every direction, which is captured in her book, Demystifying Talent Management: Unleash People’s Potential to Deliver Superior Results.

If you have been putting off a difficult conversation, you’re not alone. In Dr. Janson’s research, 40% of people surveyed reported they have experienced putting off a tough talk for at least a month. In many ways, procrastinating about having a difficult conversation is even more stressful than going ahead with it. Polling people leaving difficult conversations, Dr. Janson found that 75% of senior leaders felt better that they addressed the issue and it was behind them. 

It is tempting to search for an alternative to facing the conflict head-on when we approach adversity. No matter how much we would like to avoid conflict, the clearest path to the other side runs straight through it. Getting to the heart of the matter requires us to have clarity about our goals, which will keep us from getting lost in the weeds. We must remember that our mission is to fix the issue and maintain the relationship. Even change the way you think about it – it’s not conflict — it’s about intelligent people solving problems.

When we lose sight of these goals, we leave all parties vulnerable to common pitfalls that do more harm than good. Assumptions about intentions, oversimplifications, or beating around the bush are a few of the many ways that things can go wrong — and we all can name a time when emotions got the best of us in the throes of a tough conversation.

Looking at this evidence, it’s clear we need help that will not only assist us with these difficult conversations but also help us navigate towards a productive resolution. Dr. Janson offers five differentiators that make a big difference in our success in these endeavors.

  1. Don’t wait. “When there’s a problem, you shouldn’t wait too long to talk,” says Dr. Janson. “It is important to have the patience to prepare well for the conversation and find the right place and time. Find the right balance – you want to wait for the most productive and centered moment without waiting so long that the conflict and your procrastination causes more damage. When it comes to finding the earliest and best moment to speak, the key is preparing for and addressing the issue proactively.”
  2. Be careful of too much “warm-up” or “set-up.” “What I tell clients is we are all about going towards adversity, addressing it, and getting on the other side so we can move onto even better things,” says Dr. Janson. “When the time is right for the talk, be direct and move towards the adversity. People can sense when they’re being warmed up for bad news. Rather than prolonging the agony and coming off as disingenuous, respect their time and judgment by saying what you have to communicate with confidence. Then, move the conversation in a direction that invites them to participate in solving the problem.”
  3. Have a collaborative mindset. Avoid making a person feel cornered, which will likely create a fight or flight response in them. This is why Dr. Janson urges clients to let people save face. “Using “I statements” invites the other person to offer their perspective,” says Dr. Janson. “Listen to find common ground upon which a solution can be built. This should be a dialogue, not a monologue. People have a fundamental desire to be heard – empathy, respect, and maintaining people’s dignity are the tenants of a successful resolution.”
  4. Be skillful in engaging in an intentional way.
    • Inquire – Begin by asking questions about the issue. You may think you know what the problem is. Still, it is unlikely you completely understand the other party’s intent – or how you may be contributing to the problem. Asking them about the situation is a reliable way to begin a collaborative discussion.
    • Acknowledge – Listen and respond to what the person says to you – even if you are not in agreement regarding an issue. 
    • Advocate – Note the details of their answers with empathy, which will foster a natural flow into the next step – advocacy. Express belief in the person and the situation being better as you move forward.
  5. Let it go. One of the most important steps, if not the most important, is to let it go. It is hard to move forward if you put all these rocks in your pocket and carry them around with you. Have confidence in the solution and expect success. Don’t keep dragging noise from the past, and don’t hold a grudge, because it is sure to limit your effectiveness.

These tips originate from Dr. Janson spending a lifetime bridging the gap between the cutting-edge research of academia and the hands-on experience of the world’s top corporations. She has two Master’s degrees, a Ph.D. in business, and a work history that includes executive-level positions with H. J. Heinz, Bank of America, Hasbro, and Bank of Boston. These tried and true methods have helped thousands of people mitigate what previously could be dreadful interactions and help to flip the script to make them valuable problem-solving sessions.

Dr. Janson’s book, Demystifying Talent Management, is a cherished wellspring that many leaders return to time and again. Her new book, Determining Leadership Potential, is available for preorder – a fact-driven guidebook to aid in the tricky work of determining potential in others. Those curious about Dr. Janson’s premier consulting and coaching services can explore more at Janson Associates


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