5 ways to hack into the mind-set you need for tough conversations

By Ana Homayoun

June 08, 2018

Earlier this year, a young man I’d been coaching approached me with an enviable problem: He was months away from graduating from a prestigious master’s program and juggling multiple offers from three well-known tech companies. They were each offering him widely different compensation packages and all had different timelines for when they needed a response. He felt frozen and overwhelmed by the prospect of negotiating with all three employers–but knew that he’d need to in order to make a decision.


Given how much of our communication happens online, many of us feel underprepared for difficult face-to-face conversations like these–especially when they concern compensation, time off, performance, and long-term career plans. But these discussions are not only unavoidable, they’re critical to our professional growth and development. And nailing them demands going in with the right mind-set. Here are five strategies to help you get into the headspace that makes you the strongest communicator you possibly can be.

1. Visualize the end first

Rather than preparing your opening statement or worrying about how to break the ice, step back and think about the ultimate goal and your ideal outcome. Doing so can help keep you focused and calm in the face of overwhelming details. I helped the young man I was working with to see that having three job offers was a great opportunity, and that his real predicament was how to talk about it in a way that reflected his gratitude while also addressing the differences in compensation and timeline pressure.

The ultimate goal, in other words, was to do what was best for his long-term career development while simultaneously denting his student loan debt. The ideal outcome would achieve both things and–hopefully–preserve his connections with all three organizations.

2. Brainstorm many solutions, don’t seek just one

It’s easy to get mired in challenges, scrambling to identify the one approach to get you out of it. But thinking about different potential solutions encourages mental flexibility and a sense of openness that can make awkward conversations a little less forbidding. It can also create more opportunities for collaboration.

At first, having a job offer in a policy role from a well-known technology company was all my mentee was focused on. But after some reflection he realized that each company offered him different responsibilities, travel opportunities, and personal growth challenges, and he thought through how each role aligned with his own values and ideals. That made it easier to see how various paths could lead him toward an outcome he’d be happy with–rather than just one.

3. Practice out loud

Getting tongue-tied during in-person conversations is an unfortunate side effect of so much digital communication in our ordinary working lives. There’s no substitute for practicing a difficult conversation out loud. It can help reduce the onrush of anxiety, even out your tone, and lead to feedback that can make you a better communicator. It often takes someone else to point out when to slow down, enunciate, and project calm self-possession.

But if you can’t find a partner to practice with, record yourself, then watch or listen to your performance, noting any “um”s, “ah”s, or pauses that may get in the way of your message; fewer of those verbal tics indicate a strong tone and confidence. Try practicing alone first and then with an audience–even if the audience is your cat.

4. Intentionally reset your attitude

At first, the young man I spoke with was frustrated about having to juggle these offers and conversations with recruiters while he was busy with school. By taking a page from author Adam Grant’s “time-machine” trick, I asked him to go back to three months prior when he was worried about finding a job. Now, sitting here with three offers in hand didn’t seem so terrible.

The mental and emotional state with which we approach tough conversations matters. For some, meditating or visualizing solutions helps; for others, writing down potential solutions and benefits can lead to feeling more open and relaxed. Hitting your mental “reset” button, in whatever way works best for you, can help you project a better outward demeanor. (Of course, avoiding distractions and not chewing gum is important, too.)

5. Reframe the experience as an opportunity

Once my mentee did the time-machine trick, he was able to look at his situation from a place of gratitude and realize that the conversations he was being forced to have were actually great opportunities to make connections, build a network, identify his own priorities, and practice negotiating constructively. Conversations that once seemed overwhelming were easier to think of as chances to sharpen job skills.

In the end, the young man took an offer with a compensation package that far exceeded his expectations and provided ample opportunities for growth and development. By drawing on some of these strategies to get into the right mind-set beforehand, the conversations that got him there weren’t even that stressful. He feels great about this choice and can’t wait to get to work this summer.

Ana Homayoun is a school and workplace consultant and the author of three books, including most recently Social Media Wellness. Find her on Twitter at @anahomayoun.

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