This is the third post in a series about difficult conversations. The first delved into what makes a conversation difficult and provided a series of steps to prepare for a difficult conversation—the second focused on the techniques you can use in the discussion to keep things constructive.
Don’t head for the hills once you’ve survived the difficult conversation. It’s not a “we must never speak of this again” scenario. Instead, follow up in a way that creates closure, ensures alignment, and cements the relationship benefits that come with candor. You get an A+ for broaching the difficult conversation only after the follow-up.
How to Follow Up After a Difficult Conversation
Start with Thanks
If you have the wherewithal at the end of the difficult conversation, take a beat and then thank the person. Thank them for not running away. Thank them for helping you see another perspective. Thank them for investing in your business or relationship by working through something uncomfortable. Don’t pretend that it was nothing. Don’t take it for granted. Say, thank you.
If you didn’t have the presence of mind in the moment, or you weren’t exactly feeling a “thanks” at the end of the conversation, go back to it as soon as you feel able. That might be a text message as you return to your desk. “That was important. Thank you.” It could be a fly-by later in the day, even before you fully process the conversation. Heck, you might not be ready for contact, but you can still put a sticky note on their computer while they’re in the bathroom. Just make sure you get that thank you in there at some point.
Discuss Next Steps
One of the biggest mistakes people make (and a giant waste of energy for all involved) is to end the conversation and not revisit the resolution and any next steps. In the heat of a difficult conversation, neither of you is in the best state to remember objectively what you’ve committed to. You might remember those commitments differently and set up a conflict when you fail to meet each other’s expectations. Worse, you might have completely blocked out what you agreed to do. Ugh.
To avoid that problem, document your understanding of the agreement. Keep it short and sweet. “We agreed that when there are concerns in the future, you will let me know before the meeting so I can be prepared. I’m going to increase the lead time on sending out materials, so you have more opportunity to review and get back to me.”
I refer to this alignment step (which should happen after any form of conflict) as “sticking the landing.” Like the gymnast, no matter how many impressive flips and contortions you made in the midst of the conversation, you won’t get credit if you don’t stick the landing.
I’m partial to written forms of communication for this step because they force precision and can also be used later for reference.
Ask for Feedback
After the fact, when you’ve each had a little time to decompress, ask for feedback about what you shared or how you shared it. You can couch it if it makes it more comfortable. “I was so nervous about raising that issue with you, and I tried to be clear and kind. What advice would you give me when I’m approaching uncomfortable conversations in the future?” Alternatively, specify, “What do you wish I would do differently next time?”
I prefer the future-focused questions because you’ll get a sense of what needs to be different without the excruciating rehash of the initial conversation. I also recommend the expression “what do you wish” as a more suggestive way for someone to tell you what they want. More on using “I wish” as a tool for constructive conflict here.
End with Thanks
Yup, I know we already went through one round of thank yous, and now I’m recommending a second: think of it as the Thank You (Reprise), like in a musical. While your first thank you is a demarcation between icky uncomfortable and okay breathe, the second thanks should be a signal that you’re moving on better than before. It should focus on the relationship benefits of having difficult conversations.
This second thank you might come a week (or two or a month or two) after the conversation. Now’s your big chance to share what it means to you to have colleagues willing to go through the mud with you in service of a healthy team and business. There are many versions to choose from; here are a few:
“I was reflecting on our conversation about sharing the credit for work and realizing that not many people would have been as open to that feedback as you were. I’m grateful that you make it feel safe to have these conversations.”
“You really changed my perspective over the past couple of weeks. I was locked into thinking of this through the design lens, and you pushing me to consider the implementation challenges was so valuable. I know I didn’t make it easy, so thank you!”
“There was a lot of emotion close to the surface in our discussion, and you didn’t back away. It gave me the chance to work through things and come to a good resolution. I feel much more confident about our ability to find our way through other contentious issues.”
“You are the best partner from sales I’ve ever had. I feel like we can fight the good fight, and you’re always looking for the best answer, not what’s expedient or necessarily the best for sales. Thank you for that.”
Why You Shouldn’t Apologize
One last thought…
You might behave in many ways in a difficult conversation that warrant an apology after the fact. That list includes aggressive interrupting, yelling, name-calling, getting your facts wrong, etc. If you did one of those things during the contentious conversation, it’s worth apologizing. Here are the detailed instructions for what makes a good apology.
But for most things you’re ruminating on and berating yourself for, a thank you is a better next step than an apology. Why? Because if we use language that reinforces the notion that difficult conversations are inappropriate or aversive or that being human and emotional is a failing, we’re never going to normalize the discomfort of being on a great team. If you catch yourself wanting to say, “sorry,” could you swap in one of these alternatives?
Instead of saying, “I’m sorry I got upset,” try “Thank you so much for sticking with the conversation. That was really emotional for me.”
Instead of, “I’m sorry to add another thing to your plate,” say, “I realize you have a lot going on right now. Thank you for making time for this.”
Instead of “I’m sorry that I upset you,” go with, “Thank you for being open to this feedback.”
In general, the formula is to replace “my bad” with “your good.”
When you take the time to close the loop on a difficult conversation, you make it worth the time and effort. Not only does it give you a chance to ensure you’re on the same page about what comes next, but it also reinforces the fact that candor, vulnerability, and shared discomfort strengthen trust; they don’t erode it.