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Tips for Tough Conversations

I talk to losers.

It is literally part of my job.

When people find out I work in sports broadcasting they automatically jump to the cool parts of the job like being on the field and talking to players after a win. But that’s only part of my job. I talk to players and coaches win or lose. I talk to players after making spectacular plays and after they dropped a pass that could have been the game-winning touchdown.

Not all interviews are fun. Not all interviews are easy. Sometimes those conversations are tough and ones that I would rather not have, but as I mentioned it’s part of my job.

It’s also part of your job to have tough conversations and address mistakes, errors and shortcomings. I know you want to avoid them. I also know it’s better if you don’t. As someone who’s forced to have these conversations on a weekly (if not daily) basis here’s what I know to be true: Being direct and straightforward is the kindest and often easiest way to have the tough conversation.

The athletes I’m talking to expect the tough conversation and just want to get it over with.

The receiver who dropped the potential game-winning touchdown, the pitcher who gave up the walk-off home run, the third baseman who committed the error all know what happened. They know how they contributed to the outcome. They know they didn’t get the job done. They expect the conversation because it’s about accountability.

I might want to soften the blow and tiptoe around the obvious questions, but that approach only makes an uncomfortable conversation awkward. They don’t need me to set up the play, describe the scenario or ask a wordy question. They need me to get it over with as quickly as possible.

After 22-years of asking questions I know that’s the best way to get the answer I need, but it’s not my personal preference. Being direct is something that takes practice for me. It’s why I write my questions ahead of time and practice saying them out loud. When engaging in tough conversations or interviews, my personal communication preference takes a backseat. I need to use the most effective approach not the easiest one.

It is the same way I approach tough conversations in business. Here are 5 tips for tough conversations:

  1. Be direct. This doesn’t mean unkind it means taking the fluff out of the question and getting right to the point.
  2. Practice saying the words. If you’re not used to asking a direct question like “Why couldn’t you meet the deadline?” you’ll want to practice ahead of time so it’s not unfamiliar.
  3. Pay attention to the look on your face. Make sure you read the room and don’t add more emotion to a potentially emotional conversation.
  4. Use a neutral tone in your voice. Even when you’re frustrated, mad, disappointed, confused… don’t add extra emotion to the situation.
  5. Set them up to succeed. In post-game interviews that means asking questions athletes can answer without throwing anyone under the bus. In business conversations it means asking real questions that can be answered, not rhetorical, condescending questions that could put someone on the defensive.

If your goal is to have a productive exchange (and shouldn’t that always be the goal?) create an environment that encourages conversation, even if it’s not easy.


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