Does the idea of giving a friend negative feedback about their behavior make you cringe? What about challenging a grade on an assignment or test?
Few of us like having difficult conversations, but there are times though when difficult conversations are hard to avoid.
If you find yourself avoiding an important conversation, examine what’s going on inside. What are your thoughts about how the conversation might go?
Sometimes the stories we create in our minds about what may or may not happen are just a reflection of our own fears or anxieties. It’s okay to feel anxious, unsure, or like you want to run in the other direction before a hard conversation but avoiding difficult conversations often does not help. Plus, letting fear run your life is no way to live.
Here are six tips to help you get a difficult conversation off on the right foot.
- Prepare for the conversation before hand – Before stepping into a tense or hard discussion, ask yourself these questions:
- Sort out what happened.How do you see the situation? What do you think you know about the other person’s viewpoint? What impact has this situation had on you? What might their intentions have been? What have you each contributed to the problem?
- Understand feelings.Explore your feelings and ask yourself, “What emotions am I experiencing?” Identify and manage strong feelings when they arise. People often talk to themselves about staying calm and clearheaded during difficult conversations, but then they struggle when the conversation actually occurs. The two hardest and most challenging tasks in a difficult conversation are expressing your feelings calmly and listening to the other person.
- Ground your identity.How does this situation threaten you or have the potential to shake up your sense of identity? How do you see yourself (I am honorable, I am a loyal friend, I am courageous)? What do you need to accept in order to be better grounded?
- Be clear about how you feel, what you want, and decide whether to raise the issue – A big part of tackling difficult conversations is communicating clearly and directly. Make sure you really need to raise the issue at all. Will raising the issue help you achieve your purposes? To determine that, ask yourself:
- What do I hope to accomplish by having this conversation?
- Do I want to prove a point or change the other person?
- What are five reasons the person might have acted the way they did?
- Has this person done/said anything like this before, or is this totally out of character?
- How can I shift my stance to support learning, sharing, and problem-solving?
- Can I affect the problem by changing my own contributions?
- Did I do anything that may have hurt/confused/angered them that might account for what’s happened?
- If I don’t raise this issue, can I let go of it?
3. Actively Listening – If you dodecide to raise a difficult issue, do not start the conversation with your view or story. When the other person is talking don’t spend the time thinking about what you want to say next. Instead,
- Actively listen to understandthe other person’s point of view about what happened.
- Ask questions, like “Tell me more about that?” or “How did that make you feel?”
- Acknowledge the other person’s feelings.
- Try to repeat back what you think the other person’s side of the story is to see if you’ve got it. Try to unravel how the 2 of you got to this place.
- Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, and feelings calmly.
- Look at the issue from their perspective – It can be easy to get caught up in how youfeel, especially if you have been hurt or are feeling awkward. Before you jump to any conclusions, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see the situation from their perspective.
- Describe the problem as the difference between your stories. Include both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion.
- It is important for you to have the courage to be honest and say what needs to be said. Difficult conversations are often about standing up for yourself and being assertive about expressing your wants and needs.
- Use ‘I’ statements. So, instead of saying, ‘You do not care about me at all!’, try this: ‘I feel really upset when [insert issue here].’ (Using you statements can make the other person feel attacked, and they’ll be less likely to listen to you. Using I statements can lessen the chance they feel attacked, so they may be more likely to actually hear what you have to say.)
- Share your purposes and let the other person know you are looking to sort out the situation together.
- If things are not going as planned, take a break – Sometimes you can do everything you can to have a constructive chat, but if the other person isn’t willing to do the same, it can feel like it’s going nowhere.
- It is okay to take time out to let everyone cool down. Agree to come back later to continue the discussion.
- You could ask someone who is not actively involved to join you both, to help reduce the tension and encourage both sides to try and reach a workable outcome.
- It is also, ok to step back and think about whether or not you should stop and let it go. There are times when having a difficult conversation is a bad idea.
- Reaching an Agreement on the Way Forward – Focus on finding options that meet both of your most important concerns and interests. Keep in mind that relationships that always go one way rarely last. Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward.
It is important to note, that not all conversations like this are going to have a happy ending. There will be some people, situations, or behaviors that you just can’t talk through – and that’s okay.
Agreeing to disagree does not mean you agree with their perspective. You are just protecting yourself by choosing which battles to fight. The situation may require consulting with someone else to help find a solution. That’s ok too. Sometimes others can bring a unique and helpful perspective that can help you out.
GE Foundation Workplace Skills Program: Module Eight Having Difficult Conversations – Participant Booklet. Read more here.