Practical Guide to Difficult Conversations: Coach Through Conflict

A Practical Guide to Difficult Conversations: How to Coach Through Conflict

The Shortcut: Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional. This guide will prepare you to tackle critical coaching sessions with four practical tips from coaching and communications pros.

Conflict is inevitable. Combat is optional. These words, attributed to Pastor Max Lucado, might help take the sting out of what can be one of the most challenging duties of transportation managers—the coaching conversation.

One reason managers may find coaching difficult is that the drivers they need to coach often are peers or former peers. “When we need to have that challenging exchange, or give negative feedback, our tongues become tied and our messages can land with a thump,” said Jenni Prisk, founder of Prisk Communication.

If the words “we need to talk” give you high anxiety, then read on. This article lines up expert advice from communications pros, management professors and transportation safety directors to guide you through tough conversations.

Ask the driver to narrate. One technique, shared by a senior safety director of a national trucking company at the Lytx® User Group Conference in March, is to ask the driver to narrate the DriveCam® video of the event. Drivers tend to be more critical of themselves than coaches. If the narration stalls, Karen Thrall, an executive leadership coach and communications consultant, suggests spurring the conversation with three simple words: Help me understand. Fill in the rest of the sentence with non-judgmental phrasing, such as “Help me understand what you were experiencing at this point in the video,” Thrall said during an interview with Lytx. These techniques help to open the conversation and pave the way to the next part of the discussion—ways to improve.

Respect the driver. Victor Malchesky, director of safety and compliance at Swift Transportation, advised coaches to be respectful of drivers. “We owe it to our drivers and the motoring community to have meaningful conversations with them to help fine-tune their driving—gently and professionally,” Malchesky said during the 5th Annual Lytx User Group Conference in March, where he shared Swift’s 5-step coaching guide.

Focus on clarity, neutrality and temperance. Holly Weeks, an adjunct professor who teaches communications at the Harvard Kennedy School, writes that these are the “three building blocks of communication.” Clarity requires communicating the needed facts, whether it’s company policies or the intent behind them, without the sugar-coating that can muddle up the message. But clarity doesn’t have to be brutal, Weeks says. Bringing neutrality into your tone can help keep the conversation level. Finally, temperate phrasing also can prevent the conversation from going off the rails. “The goal is to advance the conversation, to hear and be heard accurately, and to have a functional exchange between two people,” Weeks writes.

Practice with a neutral friend. Delivering criticism in a way that makes the driver want to improve takes skill. If the prospect of these conversations rattles you, try practicing with a neutral partner, Weeks recommends in her article. Focus on the key points you want to get across. Once you have that down, you can fine-tune the phrasing, Weeks writes.

As you practice, it’s good to bring a measure of self awareness to the table, Prisk advised. “When you must have a crucial conversation, begin by thinking about your own communication style—and shortcomings. What triggers your emotions? How will you deal with push-back from the other person? Where will you compromise?” asked Prisk, who coaches executive teams. “Listening to understand is the most effective form of communication in this situation. Repeat and rephrase where necessary. Decide before you begin that you will seek a solution, followed by the development of an action plan, to insure the stability of your relationship with the other person.”

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