Research suggests that most of us would prefer to avoid difficult conversations altogether but if you’re someone who cares about creating and maintaining healthy and happy relationships, sometimes an uncomfortable conversation is inevitable.
Over the years, I’ve learned some great tips from coaches and mentors that have helped me enormously. I thought I’d share these with you too.
1. Get clear about your agenda
Before you approach the conversation, be clear about your desired outcomes. Why is the conversation important at all? What’s the real issue you’re dealing with? What outcome are you hoping to achieve?
This is also the time to decide if this is a discussion worth pursuing. Does it matter enough to want to resolve it or can you let it go and move on?
2. Set up a time to talk
Rather than launching straight into a tricky conversation when the other person is unprepared, let them know you’d like to chat and set a time frame for your discussion. If it’s a workplace conversation, it’s often helpful to take your discussion onto neutral territory.
You might pre-empt a difficult conversation by saying some thing like, “Is now a good time for a chat?” or “Are you open to feedback on this?” or simply, “Do you have time for a coffee this week?”.
Consider the factors that might be contributing to both your point of view and theirs. How has your behaviour contributed to the situation? What are the external (or internal) factors that might be influencing their position? Is this a relationship dynamic that’s recurrent in your life?
Sometimes the things that push our buttons are issues we need to address within ourselves. For example, if you find even the smallest degree of error intolerable in others, you might be struggling with perfectionism within yourself.
Do your best to be aware of your own triggers and try to cultivate a good understanding of the other person’s position. Have empathy for both of you as you go into the conversation.
4. Assume the best of the other person (and keep an open mind)
Enter the conversation with as much kindness and compassion as you can. Assume the best of the other person, even if there’s tension between you. Remind yourself that we’re all doing the best that we can with the information we have, which means that sometimes our blindspots are simply areas where we’ve never had the opportunity for development.
Bring curiosity and openness to your conversation and be willing to learn more about their perspective before being rigid with your own ideas. Find out what matters most to them. Ask, “What’s your greatest concern?” or “What’s the most important priority or outcome for you?”
5. Be direct but non-threatening
Don’t leave the other person guessing by engaging in lengthy small talk before addressing the real issue. Get to the point and stick to the facts. Avoid being emotional and choose words that are non-threatening. Don’t bring up issues from the past and avoid saying anything that is deeply hurtful. Words that are expressed in the heat of the moment can never be taken back.
As Dr John Gottman, leading relationship expert suggests, avoid the following four behaviours that are most likely to escalate conflict. These include criticism (attacking the other person’s character); contempt (treating the other person with disrespect which might include name calling, mimicking or eye rolling); defensiveness (seeing yourself as powerless or a victim) and stonewalling (withdrawing from the interaction).
Remember also the words that Brené Brown shares that help her most with difficult conversations. Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
6. Listen well and ask helpful questions
People who prefer to avoid difficult conversations often spend a lot of time going over their own points and formulating responses in their heads. Do your best to listen well, rather than being focused on what you want to say next.
Ask lots of questions to help you understand the other person’s perspective better. If the conversation gets heated, avoid phrases such as, “Calm down,” or “What you’re not hearing is…” and instead use language such as, “I understand,” or “What I hear you saying is X. Is that right?”.
7. Use “I” statements and talk about the impact on you
Rather than pointing the finger or telling someone, “You ignored my opinion,” try something like “I understand that those points are important but I’m feeling unheard about the importance of this area.”
8. Stay calm and don’t attribute emotions to others
Continue to keep your emotions out of the conversation and stick to the facts. Also avoid attributing emotions to others.
Instead of saying, “You’re clearly getting stressed” or “You’re obviously angry”, you might say, “I’m concerned that the discussion is moving away from what’s important. I’d like the opportunity to speak calmly about this so that it’s helpful for both of us.”
9. Acknowledge your contribution
Think about how you’ve contributed to the situation rather than simply apportioning blame. You might say, “We may have a misunderstanding because I haven’t been clear in my expectations.” or “I’ve been feeling stressed about this situation so I may not have handled it as well as I could have.”
When we approach a difficult conversation, aware of our own shortcomings, it gives us the opportunity to put aside defensiveness. If you’re willing to be vulnerable, you might be surprised at how readily the other person can meet you with a similar frame of mind.
10. Check that you have your facts right
Rather than launching into an attack, make sure you’re clear about the facts. Approach sensitive and second-hand information thoughtfully.
For example, “Anne, this is a little awkward for me but I’ve heard that you’ve spoken about me to a colleague and I’m not sure if that’s true, but I felt it might be helpful for us to speak about it directly,” is better than, “You’ve been talking about me behind my back and I’m not happy about it.”
11. Offer alternatives
If you’re clear that you’re unable to meet the requirements or expectations of the other person, let them know what you can offer and ideally, given them a couple of options. For example, “We won’t be able to get the project completed with the full scope by that date but what we can offer are these options.”
12. Be comfortable with silences
Don’t feel you need to rush to agreement or fill every gap in a conversation. Take a break if you need to and agree to a time to come back to the discussion within 24 hours so there’s not too much time to create excessive worry or stress.
13. Stay solution focused and be willing to compromise
If you find yourself going around in circles, ask the other person what a compromise might look like. You might acknowledge openly that neither party is going to gain exactly what they want.
14. Be patient and agree to disagree
If you can’t reach agreement, validate the other person’s perspective and acknowledge that you have differences of opinion. You might say, “I can understand you feeling that way. It seems we’re going to have a different opinion on this.”
15. Be kind and be forgiving
It’s important to remember that even though some people appear more comfortable with difficult conversations, nearly everyone finds them exhausting. Do your best to cultivate compassion for the other person and wherever possible, be forgiving. Research tells us that holding onto grievances can lead to feeling trapped in a cycle of anger, self-pity, and resentment that will put you at risk of further conflict as well as emotional and physical stress.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning another person’s behaviour but rather, making peace with it in a way that provides you with internal freedom. If you find it difficult to forgive, try repeating this mantra often, ideally with a light-hearted approach. “I forgive you for being imperfect and I forgive myself too.”