Learning How to Have a Difficult Conversation
It’s almost unavoidable – there are going to be times when you need to have difficult conversations. Even though it’s unavoidable you still may be tempted to dance around something or avoid it altogether because you are uncomfortable with confrontation or conflict.
Whether you have to deliver some unpleasant news, discuss a delicate subject or talk about something that’s gone wrong, almost everyone dreads having these types of conversations. It seems better to put it off or ruminate some more before taking the leap to discuss something that makes you feel dread.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s with your partner, your child, a friend or a coworker, difficult conversations can feel awkward and difficult. Sitting down with your mother-in-law to discuss why you don’t want her to just come to your house without calling first, may make you break out into a sweat and talking to your friend about an issue you’ve been having with her lately, may put a knot in your stomach.
If you are someone who is uncomfortable having a difficult conversation it’s because you were never taught the skill of how to have a difficult conversation. It doesn’t require you to be negative, forceful or dramatic; it only requires you to be open to learning a new way of communicating and managing your mind.
This week I’m going to discuss the steps to having a difficult conversation and share examples so that, no matter what the outcome of the conversation, you will feel better for having learned this new skill.
The steps to having a difficult conversation
A Google search of “conflict resolution skills” shows over 100 million hits which means relationships and conflicts seem to go hand in hand. Suggestions like not jumping to be defensive, not pointing fingers and actively listening are offered as ways to resolve a conflict that is already set in motion.
These resolution skills are great to know once there’s an actual conflict however there’s an even better way to resolve conflict. That better way is learning how to have a difficult conversation that actually makes conflict unnecessary.
The following steps will help you have a difficult conversation no matter who you are having it with or what the subject is:
The first step in learning how to have a difficult conversation is deciding if it’s really what you want to do. In this step you need to get real with your motive behind having the conversation in the first place.
Ask yourself “What is my reason for having this conversation?” and be truthful. If your reason is to get someone to apologize or so they will feel bad about something, then these are not good reasons to have that conversation.
If you are trying to get someone to do, say or change something so you can feel better then you’re not ready to have the conversation. It just means you are in emotional childhood where you believe something outside of you is responsible for how you currently feel and you need to do some mind management first.
However if the reason you want to have the conversation is because you want to be your best self, it feels like you being the person you want to be in that relationship, or it feels authentic and might lead to connection on some level, then you are ready. Basically the reason needs to be about you, who you want to be and how you want to show up.
Once you’ve decided that you want to have the conversation for the right reason, now you want to get clear about the result you want to have. Your definition of a successful conversation cannot be dependent on people, places or things changing.
In this step the result that you want has to do with you, not the other person. If the result you want from the conversation is for your husband to apologize, you’re still in emotional childhood; if the result you want is to share your thoughts and feelings in an authentic, open way without any expectations, you’ve decided on a good desired result for a successful conversation.
Your definition of success should not be dependent on things outside of your control. What your husband thinks, how he feels or what he does with the information you share with him should have nothing to do with the result you want from having the conversation; if it is dependent on him, you need to do some clean up beforehand.
This is when you can decide to make a request of someone but the success of the conversation has nothing to do with the other person agreeing, responding positively or changing anything. Your success is only about how you show up and how you share what’s true for you.
Now that you decided the conversation is really what you want to do and you are clear that the result you want has everything to do with you and not the other person, it’s time to coach yourself. This is when you get to use the power of managing your mind.
Before you have the conversation you need to choose the emotion that will serve you best. Defensiveness, frustration and worry are going to give you a completely different result than compassion, understanding and curiosity.
The way you show up for the conversation is completely dependent on how you choose to think and feel beforehand. If you feel annoyed prior to the conversation you will have a defensive, judgmental tone during the conversation.
If you choose a feeling like curiosity, you will show up more open and available to understanding where the other person may be coming from. When you learn how to coach yourself you decide how you want to think and feel ahead of time creating a better experience for you.
You’ve set the stage in Steps #1 – 3 and now you are in the planning stage. This is where you will plan what you will say focusing on being as authentic as you can.
Starting with a “cushion” is helpful when beginning a difficult conversation. You aren’t responsible for how someone interprets what you say but you can always provide an easier introduction that makes it possible for them to be more open and receptive to what you are going to say.
When planning what you are going to say it’s helpful to come from a place of confusion and giving them the benefit of the doubt while still addressing the issue you want to discuss. When you don’t assume you know what’s going on for the other person and come from a feeling of confusion or curiosity you help open people up so they may not feel attacked or defensive.
In this step you want to be clear about the facts which may require a little research. Instead of saying “You are so negative” you might choose to say “When you said ‘I don’t think it’s possible for us to get out of debt’ it made me wonder why you don’t believe that”.
Now that you’ve planned what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, it’s time to practice the conversation on your own or with someone you trust. It’s important to be open to the feedback another trusted person may give you about what you’ve planned to say or your delivery of the conversation.
Being open to how you would want to be on the receiving end of a difficult conversation can be helpful as well. Instead of assuming what you would think and feel in a similar situation, be open to hearing what you plan to say from a different perspective.
This is the step where it’s helpful to be open to where you may still be in emotional childhood; maybe you secretly feel the need to be right, for the other person to see the error of the ways or for them to agree with what you say. This should be cleaned up by going back to Steps #1 and #2 where you get clear about your motive and the result you want to have.
This is the final step where you take all the work you’ve done and you have that conversation. You’ve decided that it’s really what you want to do, you got clear about the result you want, coached yourself, planned the conversation and practiced it.
At this point if you’ve done the previous steps, I hope you can see that you aren’t having a “difficult” conversation you are actually just having a conversation. The belief that the conversation was going to be difficult just came from not understanding the steps to take to make the conversation as non-confrontational, open, loving and peaceful as you choose it to be.
Initially it might seem cumbersome but doing the previous 5 steps does not have to take a lot of time. When you practice the skill of having a difficult conversation, there is nothing that you won’t be willing to discuss.
Examples of putting the steps into practice
In order to put the steps into practice, here are two examples of situations, the preparation for the difficult conversation and the script for the conversation:
Situation – you noticed that your husband has been giving more attention to a female friend and it makes you uncomfortable. You’re not sure if you should even say anything to your husband. You realize that the reason you would have the conversation would be for him to change his behavior.
Preparation – it’s fine to have a conversation to make a request of someone but you shouldn’t make the request to change someone else’s behavior in order to feel better. Before you decide whether you should or shouldn’t have the conversation you need to get to a place of peace. Coach yourself (or work with a coach) to get to a place where it doesn’t matter how your husband reacts to the conversation, it only matters how you choose to feel about you, him and your relationship.
Conversation – “I love you and I love us and I just wanted to tell you something in order to be honest and authentic. It’s uncomfortable for me to discuss this and it might be uncomfortable for you as well but I value the connection we have and I just wanted to share my thoughts and feelings with you. I just want you to know that I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with the attention you’ve been paying to X. I just wanted to share this with you because it’s what’s true for me. I love being able to share things with you.”
Situation – you are the manager of your department and one of your new employees is not performing well. They worked in a different firm before coming to you. Your staff has been resisting this person as well because his background and experience isn’t blending with the current staff. You previously mentioned to him that you want him to learn the way your firm handles certain things differently than he’s used to and he seemed resistant.
Preparation – you have decided that you want to be an effective manager so the reason you want to have the conversation with him is that you need to be clear about your expectations and consequences for his position. You get clear about the result you want in the end and you coach yourself because his reaction to the conversation has nothing to do with you. You know that the clearer you can be about what you expect from an employee, the better it is for everyone you manage.
Conversation – “Thank you for meeting with me. I realize that I haven’t been doing the best job as a manager because I haven’t been clear about my expectations for your position and that’s on me. I want to be a better leader because I care about your success here. So from now on I want to be totally honest with you about my expectations and the consequences of not meeting those expectations. I want you to feel you can come to me with any questions and concerns as well. Let’s see how things go over the next 30 days and I will speak to you again to see if this is the right fit for you.”
With a little bit of preparation and effort, having a difficult conversation does not need to be difficult. No matter who you need to speak to or what the subject matter is, this skill will can be invaluable in your personal and professional life for years to come.
- It doesn’t matter whether it’s with your partner, your child, a friend or a coworker, difficult conversations can feel awkward and difficult.
- The first step in learning how to have a difficult conversation is deciding if it’s really what you want to do.
- Once you’ve decided that you want to have the conversation for the right reason, now you want to get clear about the result you want to have; the result that you want has to do with you, not the other person.
- In the third step you coach yourself by choosing how you want to think and feel beforehand.
- In the fourth step you will plan what you will say focusing on being as authentic as you can.
- In the fifth step you will practice what you are going to say being aware of whether you are still in emotional childhood
- The final step is to have the conversation being clear that calling it “difficult” isn’t necessary when you’ve used the previous five steps.
If you’d like some help having
a difficult conversation, please feel free to schedule a free mini session
or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can get to work together.