Challenging Conversations


COVID-19 has affected us all. As XPX members, we are in an unprecedented position of having to deal with the challenges ourselves, while advising business owners who are forced to take extreme and unwanted steps with their businesses.

We recently held a program on the topic of Challenging Conversations featuring guest speakers Susan Vogel, a business consultant and change facilitation coach of Vogel Consulting, and Dan Guglielmo, an executive coach, CEO peer-group facilitator, author and creator of MindfulCEO. In this post, we will provide their advice on help you and your clients deal with difficult conversations. We will also share our members’ experiences of working with business owners in the current climate.

We discuss three methodologies for approaching challenging conversations:
Brain-based approach to Crisis Communications
Fierce Conversations approach
Difficult Conversations approach

Methodology 1: Effective Crisis Communications (brain-based approach)

(Concept provided by Susan Vogel and copyright of Vogel Consulting LLC)

Fact: Stress, anxiety and fear cause an amygdala hijack
Result: An inability to use logic, problem-solving skills, linear thinking, etc.

It’s important to understand that a high level of stress, anxiety, and fear can lead to something called an “amygdala hijack.” Amygdala is the part of our brain that takes over under high-stress situations to determine the “fight or flight” response. Being in the state of “fight or flight” causes us to have an emotional reaction, which in turn makes it difficult to access other parts of our brain. The ability to use logic, to be a linear thinker, to be objective, and a good problem solver, all goes out the window until we can get a hold of our emotions.

For example, your clients who are ordinarily quick decision-makers can suddenly become procrastinators or withdraw completely. Your coworkers, usually rational and clear thinkers, can become highly reactive, unfocused and scattered. The way to help them is to go through the following steps. Susan recommends that you should first develop these skills yourself and then use them to support and guide your clients.

  1. Self-Awareness: Begin with an honest self-assessment of your emotional state, your decision-making ability, your responses, and your skills. This assessment needs to be objective and non-judgmental. Determine what’s in your toolbox, what you can offer your client, and if you need to bring someone else to fill the gap. For example, if you are typically a nuts and bolts advisor, but your client needs your support on the “soft stuff,” you have to be able to provide it or recognize that you can’t, and offer them that support from elsewhere. People who can do this are going to be the most successful long-term.
  2. Introspection: It’s critical to identify the emotions you are having in the situation through introspection, so you can process them and use them to drive your next action. The crux of emotions is that you either take hold of them or they take hold of you. If you are having a hard time right now (and who isn’t), this is the first step. If your own emotions or your clients’ emotions are making you uncomfortable, figure out why. The way you do that is by naming the feeling (“I am angry”), acknowledging it, and determining what you need to do with it so you can take a small step forward.
  3. Empathy: Introspection leads to empathy, which is the ability to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. Your clients may be reacting in ways that are different from their normal behavior (like not answering calls or suddenly yelling at their team), and you have to be able to put yourself in their position and inside their heads to figure out why they are doing it. Empathy will guide you on how to approach them so you can help them move past that emotional state. This skill will help you determine how you should speak to people.
  4. Balanced Communication in The Face of Discomfort: We tend to speak to people in a way that we want to hear it, not necessarily in a way that they need to hear it. For balanced communication, you have to identify your own needs, wants and expectations, but you also have to understand all of that for the other person and ensure that your communication acknowledges both sides. Most people do one of two things: focus on their goal, what they want to get done and bulldoze over the other person, or they stop and give up on what they want because they can’t deal with the conflict or the contrary opinion. A balanced communicator will make sure that the needs of both sides are at the very least acknowledged and understood. This skill is particularly important when your clients are dealing with telling their employees about layoffs, furloughs and shutdowns.
Developing these skills will help you and your clients handle stressful and emotional situations in a better way.

Methodology 2: Fierce Conversations approach

(Introduction provided by Dan Guglielmo of MindfulCEO, based on the book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott)

Dan Guglielmo knows that preparing the opening statement of a challenging conversation is essential. He does that by using a 7-step process from “Fierce Conversations,” a book by Susan Scott. He has trained numerous CEO’s in this approach, and the feedback he gets is that “it’s a lot easier than they thought and that there’s something very magical that this process does.”

Dan recommends that your clients go through the seven steps repeatedly, write it all down and rehearse it until they can succinctly say the opening statement in 60 seconds or less. This process focuses the conversation on the issue at hand and prevents frequent pitfalls like getting off track or resorting to blame.

Here are the steps for preparing the opening statement:
  1. Name the issue: Be straightforward, “I want to talk to you about X and the effect it has on Y.”
  2. Select an example: Try to find a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change: “Here are two examples of what I am talking about, A happened, and B happened.”
  3. Describe your emotions about this issue: It’s vital that you share your emotional reaction, for example: “I feel worried.” Or “This scares me.”
  4. Clarify what is at stake: What’s at stake to gain or lose, for you, for the team, for the company, for example: “This is a big deal, if this keeps happening, your job may be at stake or the company may be at stake.”
  5. Identify your contribution to this problem: This is a key element that can open up the conversation or shut it down — you have to take responsibility: “I have contributed in this way. I apologize.” But you don’t want to say “I should have told you sooner.” When you are coaching your client, it’s often their initial reaction to add that. You want them to focus on moving forward not assigning blame; it’s about taking direct responsibility.
  6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue: Explain that you want to find a solution and restate the problem here.
  7. Invite your partner to respond: Make it clear that you want them to talk to you and that you want to understand their perspective.
Practicing the opening statement with these steps will make the challenging conversation easier to start and to manage.

Methodology 3: Difficult Conversations approach

(Introduction by Mary Adams, Executive Director of XPX, based on the book Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Hein, and the summary of the approach by Daisy Wademan Dowling for Harvard Business Review)

When we initially hosted the program that inspired this post, we called it Difficult Conversations, and realized that there is a book by that name. We found a great article from the Harvard Business Review that summarizes it and provides guidance on how to approach and handle difficult conversations. It gets right to the essence of what we talk about at the XPX exit planning exchanges: trying to optimize for today while keeping an eye on the horizon. At this moment, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on the horizon for our clients.

Below is the excerpt from the HBR article “7 Tips for Difficult Conversations” by Daisy Wademan Dowling:

  1. Keep your goals realistic. You can’t ever eliminate the stress you’ll feel around telling your supplier you’re cutting back, but you can reduce it. Spend your energy on preparation – focus on developing your specific script. 
  2. Give bad news upfront. Tough messages should be simply and clearly stated in the first sentence.
  3. Adopt the “And Stance”. Take control of the conversation by pre-empting distractions, objections and blame by using “and”. “I know you worked all night, and I know you want to do well, and I know you just joined the company, and I know the graphics people sometimes get the data wrong, and I know I could have been clearer in my directions to you….” And, and, and.
  4. Get out of the “blame frame.” Each person involved in the situation has a different objective story about what happened. Your goal is not to judge who’s right and wrong, it’s to manage to better outcomes in the future.
  5. Paraphrase. To create clarity and to let people know you’re genuinely listening, summarize what they’re telling you — and ask them to do the same.
  6. Be prepared for bad reactions. Finger-pointing, denial, arguments and tears are all possible outcomes of tough conversations. You cannot control the other person’s reactions, but you can anticipate them, and be emotionally ready.

  7. Pretend it’s 3 months or 10 years from now. Put the difficult conversation in perspective by thinking about the future. The conversations that are hardest right now will seem less daunting.

These types of conversations won’t ever be enjoyable or comfortable, but by using the provided tools, we can make them more manageable and less overwhelming.

XPX Member Experiences & XPX Resources

In the second half of this program, we asked our members (who come from varied professional disciplines) to go into breakout groups and share their experiences of challenging conversations they’ve been having with their clients. Unsurprisingly, a lot of common themes emerged. Here are a few we want to share with you:

  • As we continue to be bombarded by CEO messages, we’ve noticed that many of them are tone-deaf, lacking empathy and awareness. Being sensitive is even more critical today.
  • It’s important to have open and direct communication with clients while being conscious of their state of mind. It’s balancing act of how much to communicate with the overload of COVID-19 information, so pulling back a bit right now may make sense.
  • We need to remember that we all want to help our clients, but we are not all wired to address emotional issues, so recognize that and proceed accordingly, maybe helping the client to find trained professionals.
  • The clients are facing new ethical dilemmas: if they are providing essential products like food, that means that they are putting their employees at risk. It’s a difficult and dynamic situation to be in, and it’s important to be aware of that.
  • Emotions are on steroids and we are hearing from clients “I don’t want to do this, but I’ve got to lay people off. How do I do this well?” The skills we are discussing here can help with that.
  • Some business owners are trying to assist their laid-off employees with resumes or help place them somewhere else, and that’s a new situation for them.
  • How do we support clients who have gone AWOL? The most we can do is make them aware that we’re out there and willing to help in any way we can.
  • In cases where a business was in the middle of the exit process, we are now teaching the buyers how to have compassion and patience, and educating the sellers on why their offers are decreasing.
  • Some people, including a few of our members, are using this situation to begin a new chapter in their lives or to start their own business after getting laid off.
  • We are also seeing that businesses that were forced to pivot are now providing new products or new services, which will preserve and grow their value.

As for us at XPX, we are keeping the ideas flowing, sharing resources, and providing relevant information to our members in this quickly changing landscape. For more, please go to our COVID Resources page, available to both members and non-members.

Video of the Challenging Conversations webinar is available below.

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

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