When Relationships and Reality Collide

Tips for Having Difficult Conversations

By Sarah Gibson

“Your dad’s ability to make decisions about the business is impacting the future of the farm.”

“Because of the divorce, we need to talk about dividing assets between the two of you, including the business.”

“Your credit score has dropped significantly, and we are unable to provide you with the loan you requested.”

“The drought this year has left you further in the red than ever before.”

“Your farm is going into foreclosure.”

All of these scenarios demonstrate the difficult conversations facing ag bankers every day, but that doesn’t make having the conversation easy or enjoyable. Given that these conversations are both necessary and difficult, what can we do to make the process easier?

Let’s explore four things we can do to make these conversations go more smoothly.

Set the expectation.

Lay the expectation that your role as their loan officer or banker is to speak up when you see something that may harm their financial well-being. From the start of your relationship, tell the borrower one of your jobs is to help them see all sides, even the difficult sides of their financial decisions. Doing this builds trust, and that trust lays the foundation for more difficult conversations in the future.

If you are in an established relationship, have a conversation about how you have become more aware of the importance of the role of being a voice in your client’s life that says the hard things. Tell him/her you are incorporating more of this in how you do your job and the benefits they will experience from having someone help them look at all angles.

Prepare for the conversation.

Oftentimes we skip the preparation step, and when we do, the conversation takes an unexpected turn, which may surprise us into skipping or back pedaling on the message we needed to communicate.

A few questions that will help you prepare include:

  1. What specific message do I need to convey?
  2. How will this impact my borrower?
  3. What will that person’s reaction be?
  4. What solutions can I offer?

Answering these questions prior to your conversation will prepare you for the different ways your customer may react. Ask a colleague to help you think through the customer’s responses and even role play so you can gauge your own feelings and responses. Your preparation will help give you confidence both before the conversation and during.

Use these two phrases.

Equip yourself with two easy-to-remember phrases you can use to empathize with your customer and keep the conversation on track. The two easy phrases to remember are:

  • “I agree, and…”
  • “I don’t… I do…”

Let’s start with “I agree, and.” This phrase affirms your client’s emotion and concern, while allowing you to add your perspective and keep the conversation on point. For example, you could say, “I agree selling off equipment is not what any of us were hoping for, and while this option is painful, selling equipment will allow you to gain a much more solid financial footing to keep the business.”

The next phrase, “I don’t…I do…” comes from concepts introduced in the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler. This phrase allows you to say what you need to while revealing your good intention. Here’s an example, “I don’t want to add more stress to your situation by adding family dynamics into your decision. I do want to make sure you understand how this decision will impact your children’s ability to keep the farm.”

Say thanks.

One final tip for having difficult conversations with your clients — be sure to say thank you. It may seem odd but saying thank you ends the difficult conversation on a positive note and re-establishes the trust you hold with your client. Your thank you may sound like this, “Thanks for having this conversation. I know it hasn’t been fun or what you hoped for. However, because I value your family/your business, I knew we needed to discuss this. Please let me know how I can help.”

Difficult conversations — no one wants to have them, and yet, we all need to. Make the process easier by planning ahead and using phrases that show empathy and keep you on point, and say thank you.

Sarah Gibson, speaker and author, can be contacted at

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